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Solution-Focused OD: A Faster Path to Performance

This article was featured in the Organization Development Network, an international, professional association of organization development practitioners, and it appeared with other articles from Forbes and Harvard Business Review. If your objective is to help an organization take a positive step toward achieving its objectives in the shortest amount of time, while also maintaining client ownership, momentum, and control, we suggest that you consider this approach. Continue Reading...

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Much of the literature on organizational cultural change and resulting performance improvement, views the process as long-term. However, in a rapidly globalized and relentlessly competitive environment, many companies may find the prospect of a long-term, consultant-driven, change effort impractical. Leaders are continually searching for external techniques and programs that demonstrate change more quickly.

The question we would like to propose is whether the OD consultant can learn from the way the field of psychotherapy has responded to the managed care revolution by developing briefer forms of therapy. Proponents of Brief Strategic Therapy maintain that brief therapies are not just the traditional forms of psychotherapy done more rapidly. Rather, they say, Brief Therapy methods offer a distinctly different–and, they believe, more effective–method of treating many types of problems.

In a similar fashion, might the OD consultant dealing with organizational "problems" benefit from exploring the learning's from Brief Therapy's principles? Rather than defining OD in terms of long-term, system-wide organizational change, might we consider defining OD in terms of a series of positive, incremental changes accomplished more rapidly? Of all the key differences between traditional therapy and Brief Therapy, four may be particularly relevant to the OD practitioner. They are:

  1. The client decides on one immediate issue they would like to address. This not only makes therapy briefer, but also implies that the patient is prepared for and motivated to change.
  2. Once the therapist has helped the client successfully resolve the selected issue, successful behavior is repeatable for other issues with a decreasing amount of help from the therapist.
  3. Brief Therapy is solution focused rather than problem focused. Treatment is geared toward a resolution of one identified challenge rather than uncovering long- term patterns and past issues.
  4. Solutions are based on previous behaviors/strategies that have led to success. This focus on using existing skills rather than learning new ones, expedites the process of change.

Acknowledging that every client is different for the OD practitioner and therapist alike, here is an example of how a solution-focused approach might be applied in a business setting:

Nancy, a vice president of her corporation, has noticed that her group has not kept pace with outside performance demands. She seeks the help of a trusted OD consultant named Bill Johnson.

Bill begins by doing an assessment of the approaches that have worked well in the organization and those that have not. He and Nancy then sit down to discuss short- and long-term plans of action to bring about the behavioral change required to achieve her goals.

The organization has a number of issues, many of which seem systemic. In the past, Bill might have encouraged a "full court press"–focusing on many key issues that are not working well, and getting Nancy and her direct reports to resolve them together.

Recently, however, Bill has learned about the success that certain psychotherapists have had using Brief Strategic Therapy to spur behavioral change. He suggests to Nancy that such an approach could work for her staff. He helps Nancy choose one key issue that is important to her. Nancy picks accountability: getting her people to do what they say they are going to do–on time.

Bill helps Nancy focus on one small, but significant project that exemplifies lack of accountability. They also explore the lessons from prior attempts by the organization to resolve this issue and they attempt to weave these lessons into this effort. Although most of her direct reports appear to be struggling with meeting their commitments, Bill helps Nancy further focus by selecting only one of Nancy's direct reports, Mary, who appears to be receptive to change and is in a key line function.

Nancy and Bill meet with Mary to develop a simple, 45-day action plan for completing Mary's piece of her project. Together, they identify weekly progress milestones, and meet at least once a week for progress reviews and coaching. The process is a success: Mary completes her project on time.

Following Nancy and Mary's successful process, Nancy and Bill agree to roll out their approach to Nancy's other direct reports with the same tracking and coaching schedule, and to use the same approach to handle other issues, enlisting Mary as a resource to her colleagues.

In this example, the OD consultant is focused on changing the behavior of a single group to solve one immediate issue, rather than addressing the over-arching problem with multiple staff members. In the example given above, Bill's focused intervention with Mary and Nancy allowed for immediate modeling of the behaviors required to resolve Mary's problem with accountability. Once the issue is successfully resolved with the help of the practitioner, the behavior is then more easily repeatable for other issues with a decreasing amount of help from the consultant.

The benefit for the client is that they are quickly able to understand and take the necessary steps, with the help of the consultant, to successfully resolve a problem. By observing this process on a small scale, the consultant can quickly test his or her assumptions about the readiness of the client and organization to move ahead to improve the organization on a larger scale.

If your objective is to help an organization take a positive step toward achieving its objectives in the shortest amount of time, while also maintaining client ownership, momentum, and control, we suggest that borrowing the solution-focused approach of Brief Strategic Therapy offers real promise for the OD practitioner.

Jim Little is President of James A. Little Associates, a Prospect, Connecticut consulting firm specializing in management and organizational effectiveness. He has authored numerous articles on management effectiveness and productivity. (www.JamesALittleAssociates.com)

Joy N. Pendola is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Gestalt Therapist. She currently works for Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, Connecticut managing partial hospital and dual diagnosis services in their behavioral health department.

Mark Sachs is an organization development consultant and executive coach who practices in the Washington DC area. His areas of expertise include managing change and effective interpersonal communication. (www.markasachs.com)

de Shazer, S. (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton De Jong, P. & Berg, I.K. (1998) Interviewing for Solutions. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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