The Yin and Yang of Solution-Focused Organisational Development
Balancing Opposing Demands in Change Processes
by Susanne Burgstaller
In my practice of Solution-Focused organizational development (OD) and change work I continually need to balance a number of apparent paradoxes. Some demands of my work correspond to the Yin side of Solution-Focused OD: the softer, gentler, less tangible parts. Others correspond to the Yang side: the concrete, tough or action-oriented parts. Both Yin and Yang elements are necessary in the work and together form a whole. I will illustrate what I mean by Yin and Yang elements by narrating the story of a recent change case.
The dynamic and impatient CEO of a highly successful company of 1000+ staff wanted to bring about a strategic pivot with his organization. The need for speed of change combined with the depth of transformation, which required that everyone be fully aligned, created many tensions in the work. I would like to pick out three of them because they are typical challenges in any transformation process.
1. Building a solid platform AND Using the existing momentum
My first point has to do with the pacing of the transformation: Now and again it is necessary to slow down enough to establish or correct direction, while at the same time maintaining and increasing the momentum for change.
Inspite of the impatient drive for action on the part of the leadership team, I needed to find a way to slow them down enough to a) make the direction of the change clear enough and b) to allow a broad segment of staff members to get on board. This is called “platform building” in Solution-Focused OD. At that early stage I find it crucial to prevent the organization from blindly rushing into action. The time invested at that point is always invested wisely. I liken it to a bus that needs to stop in order to communicate the direction to everyone and let people get on – or off! The need is for softly holding open the door. There will always be a few stragglers!
On the other hand, I did not want to hold up the process too much when such enthusiasm for change was exhibited by a number of key people. Instead, I wanted to kindle the feeling that the change process that I was being invited into was already ongoing, and what we now needed to do was to direct and amplify it. Most of all, I did not want to hold up the process by my own need for briefing or direction. So, as usual, I dived into written materials and conversations in order to quickly learn the concepts and language of their domain.
But I also used my antennae to check: “How easily do I– as an outsider - understand the direction they want to take?” Interestingly I have often found that if I don´t understand their “vision”, the majority of the staff members don´t understand it either. If, however, the “vision for change” is clear, detailed and compelling enough for an outsider to understand, the whole organization usually also gets it.
2. Stories AND Actions
It may well be said that Solution-Focused OD is story oriented. In fact, encouraging rich descriptions is essential to the Solution-Focused approach in every setting. Therefore, I encouraged both imaginative and observant story telling at every level, based on questions such as: “What is the purpose of the change? What do we want to be different in the future? What is already working? What signs of progress are we noticing?” etc. There were many conversations going on: Between individuals, within and between groups, from the top to the bottom and across functions - spinning a web of communications and interactions that covered and connected the whole change initiative.
On the other hand, Solution-Focused OD is also action oriented. Taking small steps is as essential to the Solution-Focused approach as are descriptions and stories. Talking is never enough – doing is equally important. (My impatient leaders agreed with that completely!) Consequently, I encouraged everyone to try things out, initiate small changes and adapt them if needed, while giving feedback on their experiences.
3. Co-creating with the client AND Trusting the Solution-Focused process
When working as an OD coach it is essential that we bring out and harness the wisdom of the organization about their own best ways of creating change at that particular moment. Nobody has all the knowledge - the wisdom resides in the “in-between”. While I as a coach bring certain know-how to the table, I act more like an catalyst for the ideas that arise in others, which can be combined to make a creative whole. My organization had very specific ideas about change and a particular history of what they had tried already and what they thought would work or not. I had to bend their way in order to make a way forward possible.
On the other hand, at a certain point in the change process I needed to stand my ground and be very firm regarding what I considered important. Such as when a change in their market occurred which meant that their image of the Preferred Future needed to be adapted, or when more organizational members had to be engaged in the change. “Trust the process” is something every Solution-Focused coach is told in training. It equally applies to the Solution-Focused OD process.
Working with the Yin and Yang elements of Solution-Focused OD is like mixing the ingredients for a lovely, fluffy cake without a detailed recipe: the quantities need to be finely adjusted, and experience, skill and confidence in mixing and baking is required on the part of the cook for the cake to turn out well.
Susanne Burgstaller has worked in organisational development and change for nearly 35 years. She writes about Solution-Focus, leadership, organisational development and change, and teaches and mentors change coaches.