Priceless: the cost of change in a few quotes

A traditional approach to coaching and change (and “it’s common knowledge in the business world that change is very difficult. Managing change is hard work, creating change takes lots of effort, top management support is vital and yet elusive, and great care has to be taken to make sure it all doesn’t go horribly wrong” in the words of Mark McKergow)
a Brief Coaching, Solution-Focused approach to change (“it’s fast, effective, energizing, engaging, flexible, low cost…and somewhat counter-intuitive”, quoting Mark Mc Kergow again).

“Coaching relationships should be allowed to run their course regardless of how long this may take” – in Coaching That Counts, by Dianna Anderson and Merrill Anderson, p.252
“Successful coaching does not imperatively need to be arranged over a long period of time… In all three cases, only a single coaching session took place… As a Brief Coach, I see my contribution in enabling executives a usable start in the desired direction within a conversation… So coaching can be designed in a way to make further coaching superfluous“, Peter Szab√≥, Brief Coaching of Executives

“Finding 1: The Perceived Effectiveness of Coaching Increased with the Length of the Coaching Relationship. Those who were coached the longest (e.g., 18 or more hours) rated coaching the highest: 81% rated coaching as very effective, 17% as somewhat effective, and only 2% as not effective. On the other hand, those who were coached the shortest amount of time (e.g., up to 6 hours) rated coaching as less effective: 46% rated coaching as very effective, 40% as somewhat effective, and 14% rated coaching as not effective.” – in Coaching That Counts, by Dianna Anderson and Merrill Anderson, p.252
This resulted in the development of solution-focused brief counseling, a simple procedure which leads to
the rapid identification of sustainable and effective solutions. In concrete terms, this means that, by systematically refraining from counseling activities that are of little use, the time investment can be
reduced to an average of three meetings, each lasting 50 minutes.
This form of counseling has
proved to be sustainable and effective, with a success rate of 86%, as shown by studies carried out
after 6 and 18 months. РPeter Szabó, in Introduction to Solution-Focused Brief Coaching.

I am not questioning the skills of coaches who use “traditional” coaching models.

They are doing an excellent job.

However, it takes them longer to get to the results that clients want, simply because they are using coaching protocols that require steps that are not essential to help clients change.
It is as if they were running a race with a heavy backpack: the weight of unproven assumptions about change weighting heavily on their backs, held back by the sheer amount of time required to engage in “change” activities (analysis, problem definition, finding weaknesses…) that are not necessary to help clients.
Solution-Focused Brief Coaching, on the other hand, is the art of asking only the few questions that can help make a difference for clients, and nothing else.

It is coaching in its purest form: brief, simple and effective.

And given the times, wouldn’t you want to get the results you seek in a singe one-hour session rather than in multiple sessions adding up to 18+ hours?

In the end, a few stats of my own for 2008:
– average number of sessions per client: 3
– percentage of coachees who say they are “very satisfied” one month after the last session: over 80%
having effective coaching support at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs: in this economy, priceless!

Solution-Focused approaches & the Positive Deviance Process

In a recent posting I talked about an intervention for reducing hospital infections.
I noted how that intervention had all the ingredients of a Solution-Focused approach, and that the authors called that approach “Positive Deviance”.
Some of my friends, in the comments, mentioned that “Positive Deviance” is a school of thought of its own.
That is undoubtedly correct.
However, I still think that Positive Deviance and Solution-Focused approaches share the same foundations, allowing for different focus and goals.

For example, in a presentation that describes the Positive Deviance Process and that can be found online here, Positive Deviance is contrasted to traditional Problem Solving approaches in the following way:
– internally fueled (by “people like us”, same culture and resources) vs. externally fueled (by “experts” or internal authority)
– down-up (sic), inside out vs. top-down, outside in
– asset based “what’s right here?” vs. deficit based “what’s wrong here?”
– begins with analyses of demonstrably successful SOLUTIONS vs. begins with analyses of underlying causes of PROBLEM
– bypasses Immune System (solution shares same “DNA” as host) vs. triggers Immune System “defense response”
(slide number 17).
I think most, if not all, Solution-Focused practitioners could use this very same list to explain how their approach is different from a more traditional problem solving approach.

There are, though, differences between the Positive Deviance Process and Solution-Focused approaches, given the different focus:
– the Positive Deviance Process is used for finding outliers (single individuals who do things differently) in a population or in a community. From the Positive Deviance Initiative website, “Positive Deviance (PD) is a development approach that is based on the premise that solutions to community problems already exist within the community.”
– the Solution-Focused approach is mainly used for finding outliers (single behaviors which lead to different outcomes) in a single individual or team. From the Solution Focused Brief Therapy Association website, “because these solutions appear occasionally and already within the person, repeating these successful behaviors is easier than learning a whole new set of solutions that may have worked for someone else”.
In other words, the focus of the Positive Deviance Process is a set of individuals; the focus of Solution-Focused approaches is a set of behaviors within a specific individual or team.

Given the different focus, the skills required are different:
skills for conducting fact-finding interviews: members of the community are interviewed to establish what the norm is and to identify who the “positive deviants” are (i.e. the outliers, individuals who manage to have different outcomes if compared to the norm) for the Positive Deviance Process; once they are identified by other members of the community, they are interviewed to find out what they are doing differently that leads them to different, positive outcomes.
– “skills for not knowing” (De Jong, Berg; 2002) and conversational skills specifically aimed at eliciting exceptions from single individuals regarding the situation viewed as problematic (i.e., times when the person expected the problem but the problem did not occur) for the Solution-Focused practitioners; once exceptions are identified, the person is interviewed to find out what they did differently, or what was different in that specific situation at that specific time, which led to a more desirable outcome.

Notice that the framework of a Solution-Focused conversation and of a Positive Deviance Process are different.
In the Positive Deviance Process the goal is set beforehand and the Process is a tool to meet that goal.
In a Solution-Focused Intervention the goal is to be negotiated with the individual or the team, within the conversation itself.

The key tenet is the same: focusing on solutions rather than problems.
However, while Solution-Focused protocols are born by inductively finding out what works in a conversation with a therapeutic goal, the Positive Deviance Process is born to identify what the outliers do differently within a community of similar individuals tackling problems like the spread of infectious disease, malnutrition, sanitation.

Positive Deviance Process, in focusing on populations, deals with outliers differently from the Solution-Focused approach.
In Positive Deviance Process, a procedure is designed to help other people of the community model the successful behaviors of the outliers (see the “Palmer Method” video here); in Solution-Focused approaches, exceptions are unique to each individuals: there is no “modeling”, no “designing”, just an invitation to do more of what works, more of what leads to even slightly better outcomes – incremental change is the name of the game.
Positive Deviance Process’s aim is to spread best practices found locally to a whole community of similar individuals.
Solution-Focused approaches’ aim is to increase the frequency of useful behaviors exhibited by an individual to a whole set of similar situations.

Note: for a health-care perspective on these very topics, go to HOP (Health-care Organizing People)

Change We Can Believe In

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I learn a lot from my clients.
After a session, I review my notes; I think of the path taken and of the many paths not taken; I think about what I said, and I think about what the client said; and new insights, new perspectives emerge.
These reflections are very useful to improve my game.
Sometimes, they offer very interesting insights into how the mind works, how change happens, how people think.

A recent coaching session with a new client led me to musings about language and change.

After getting his authorization and changing a few details to protect my client’s privacy, here it goes:

“Philosophy [and coaching] is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” – Wittgenstein, #109, Philosophical Investigations

1 – After the initial banter, I ask the client what he would like to work on. He states that “his problem is that he is not able to say no”.
According to protocol, I inquired about what he wants instead and what would be different then for him if he learns to say no to people.
As a reply, the client starts telling his own story: a self-made man, an entrepreneur and a local politician. He tells his story with pride. It seems clear that he has no problem being assertive or saying no. His narrative has epic tones.
So here is the first lesson I was reminded of: the “problem” is often a belief that has been formed by a process of generalization, deletion and distortion.
What fascinates me, again and again, is the richness of the world that is hidden behind such blanket statements offered by clients.

2 – I follow up with the proper questions, and the “problem” transforms itself into just a part of a complex puzzle of relationships, situations and interactions in the life of the coachee. It feels like seeing a black and white snapshot first becoming a color picture, then becoming a clip, then a movie, with the camera rolling from different spots, offering different views and perspectives. My friend Peter Szabo has a nice metaphor for this: it is like tapping somebody on the shoulder, and saying: I see it [the problem]. And look at what is there [pointing in another direction, then another, then another]! The client now starts to see that he can say no, and he can do that very forcefully, too! However, he feels he cannot say no to his own managers, otherwise they would “leave”. By finding exceptions, and following up on that, the frame expands (as my friend Robert Dilts would say): it is not a one-shot interaction! The managers’ requests are embedded in a web of interactions, where there are, as the client starts to see, many signs of loyalty on their part. The client gets to the idea that he can say no to some requests, explaining the why, and IN THE CONTEXT of a conversation where other positive things are highlighted. He can say yes and he can say no and he can say maybe and he can laugh and he can ask questions…
To get to that idea, the client has to battle the “problem-frame” that was kept alive by his own choice of words: “it is because I am afraid of loss”; “I have always been like that, even as a child”; “In my family…”. The past. The personality. The theories. All bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. It is as if everything else disappears, all the good things, all the achievements, and the problem becomes a huge idol that dominates the landscape of the client’s perceptions. As if the client is hypnotized by this problem. I, the coach, can feel the pressure to solve the problem! Like a vortex that sucks your attention and your energies: “I can’t say no”. The mantra, the belief. Quick, quick, let’s solve it, let’s dig deeper, let’s be enchanted by complexity and emotions and history!

4 – This client tells me he has undergone psychoanalysis. I was impressed by how well he learned that language game. He elaborates on his difficulties about accepting “loss”. He talks about “mourning” and “transference”. He tries again and again to “bait me”: he mentions his family dynamics, his childhood, how his company is like his family and he is “spoiling” his employees.
I say that he tried to “bait me” because every time he mentioned something like that, he would stare at the ground. Then he would sneak a peek at me, to see my reactions. I responded following protocol: I complimented him on his level of introspection; I invited him to build on that by asking about behaviors, third party observations and actual conversations while keeping everything in the present.
I am sure that a practitioner of a different school would have followed up on that, on “the cause”. I am sure there was a world to be discovered (or created?) there. Had I followed a NLP strategy, I would have worked on the client’s belief, on how to change it: using sleight of mouth techniques (Dilts), probably.

I stayed true to a Solution-Focused approach.
And within a solution-focused conversation, the client comes up with a brilliant idea.
He now knows that he knows how to say no. He is now able to consider different scenarios because he is in a positive mood, seeing his abilities and being complimented all the time. He also sees that people do not leave him if he says no and that a request is part of a web of interactions and a specific context. Exploring exceptions, he now sees that he is able to “say no” effectively and convincingly when his “businessman” identity is triggered, when the conversation is focused on performance indicators and cost-effectiveness analyses and business strategies. So, here is his solution: create a procedure for authorizing new benefits, incentives, pay raises or changes in the allocation of projects. The procedure includes filling out a form; it includes a holding period; each request is to be audited by the CFO. Quite a change for someone used to rewarding his employees on the spot–i.e., quite a change from over-relying on instincts and bowing to requests based on fear rather than on business sense!

Still, a simple solution.
We did not need to “dig deep” and talk about the past, about the unconscious, about projections, about family dynamics, about the fear of loss and of death…
we did not need to find the “cause” in the psyche…
we did not develop the generalization “I can’t say no” into a theory of personality, a trait of the client or a fact he has to explain and deal with.
we stayed on the surface.
we de-constructed the generalization “I can’t say no”: What happens when you say no? What is different? What else? What do you say? What do others say? Where? When?…

“what we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” – Wittgenstein, #116, Philosophical Investigations.