I was given an assignment to find out what are the pain-points in the current way of doing development inside a SW organization. Suggested way of gathering data was interviews and questionnaires. Of course, I immediately started to think about how to do this in a Wu Wei style.
The first idea that I came upon was to use Solution Focused techniques. These techniques use a few assumptions and principles that are also the core of Wu Wei Coaching. First of all, solution focus assumes that the client is the expert in his field. He is the only one who has experience of his particular context and environment. Secondly, solution focus assumes that the client already possesses all the strengths that are needed to improve the situation. There have most propably been times (or exceptions) when the situation has been better. Wu Wei Coach can help the client to become aware of these situations and the strengths that has enabled them to occur. Third significant thing in the solution focus is that the focus of discussions are put on the strengths and solution – not on the problems and weaknesses. There are significant benefits coming from this switch of the focus – not least of them is the increased agency and motivation level.
In the history of Solution Focused brief therapy, there was significant emphasis on finding out goals and small steps towards these goals. It was believed that this played an important part in reaching improvement to the situation. However, in recent years the studies have been showing that working on the goals doesn’t play such a big part. Instead, it is enough to explore the vision of “preferred futures”. By doing this, the client and the coach are revealing new possibilities of thinking/acting which can be enough to get things moving again. In fact, if you would put too much focus on achieving the goals it might even prevent you to see even better possibilities emerging as you go on.
Solution Focused Interviews
So, with this thinking in my mind I started to plan my approach. I decided to first use the interviews and leave the questionnaire as an optional thing to do if there is time or pull for that. In order to get some structure to the interviews, I planned the questions in advance:
In the dominant way of doing interviews people are usually asked things like “what is working?”, “what is not working?”, “what would be one thing that you would change?”, etc. In my experience these discussions are often problem focused, i.e. people start to complain about all the things that are not working. They are hoping that the interviewer will escalate these things to some powerful decision maker who will then take care of them. And because this rarely actually happens, people have cynical attitude against the whole interview. Lot of time is spent in the problem domain, which causes frustration and eats up lots of energy.
First thing that I noticed when running these interviews in solution focused style was that the energy level of the interview was really good. Some people started to focus on the things that aren’t working, but when this happened I always reframed their statements towards solutions and not problems:
- Coach: “So what is working so well in your team that you gave number 4?”
- Client: “Well, we do have very experienced people who have quite a good competence. However, I must say that some of the people don’t really seem to have motivation to do this job and…”
- Coach: “Ok, let’s talk about what is working for a while and get back to these problems later. Ok?”
- (Then when the discussion is on the Q3):
- Coach: “So you mentioned that some people don’t seem to have motivation to do this job. What would you like to see instead?”
By doing this I was able to maintain the focus of the discussions on the solutions. The difference was quite easy to feel and see. When people started their usual “complain mode”, their faces and whole body got tense, they looked frustrated and talked with negative tone in their voice. I literally felt that in my own body also. When we moved back to the “solutions mode”, the atmosphere relaxed and it was easier to widen the perspectives of the discussions. It is important to notice that I didn’t try to avoid the negative aspects they brought up. Instead I just tried to change the way how we talked about them.
It’s not What you say, it’s How you say it
There are good reasons for considering how we use our language. It literally shapes our world. I read an excellent article by Mark McKergow, where he pointed out how people engage in different kinds of language games. This happens all the time in regular conversations. People bring their own history and contextual understanding of the situation to the dialogues they have. Because of the richness of the possibilities in this interaction, it is always complex phenomenon – a narrative emergence.
The skills of the Wu Wei coach are then on the language games (Wittgenstein studied these a lot). The coach has to be sensitive to the used language – how is it used and what kind of context is it building? One option is to lead the conversation to the direction of solution focus, which might have the above mentioned benefits. However, that should not be the only option. The outer process isn’t the juice here, it is the ability to go in many directions. It is never possible to accurately predict what kind of dialogue will lead to “beneficial outcomes”, if any. But there is a good potential for opening up new perspectives by utilizing the “solutions mode”.