What Clouds and Clocks Can Teach Us

When Does Solution-Focus Top Problem-Solving in Organisations?

by Susanne Burgstaller

A few months ago I was introducing a group of young engineers, destined to become high-level managers in a large corporation, to the Solution-Focused approach. It did not take long for the following (oh so familiar) concerns to be raised: “To come up with sustainable solutions we MUST understand the underlying problem and address it in a systematic way. It is dangerous to omit analytical thinking and not thoroughly explore the causes of a problem.” True enough – in certain conditions. But not always and everywhere, I countered.

Our debate raised the question:

When do we apply problem-solving and when Solution-Focus?

I believe that Sir Karl Popper, the famous Austro-British philosopher, offers us a metaphor that helps answer this question.

In 1966 Karl Popper held a lecture at Washington University entitled “Of Clouds and Clocks”. The lecture was about “Rationality and the Freedom of Man”. What is interesting for us is the metaphor that Popper describes at the beginning of his lecture. He offers us a scale with “clouds” placed on the left and “clocks” placed on the right.

Popper´s clouds are “intended to represent physical systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable[1]. The weather, a cloud of midges, the molecules in a gas, the drops of water in a rough sea, even the behaviour of a young puppy, might all be placed towards the left of the scale. Also, a large group of people with many different interactions behaves extremely cloud-like.

His clocks are “intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour”.[2] This might be a very reliable pendulum clock or a good motor car. A factory (hopefully) also works much like a clock – at least as far as the technical processes are concerned.

And then of course there are systems in between: Popper places plants somewhat nearer to the clocks, and animals closer to the clouds. The changing seasons Popper regards as “somewhat unreliable clocks”[3] and places them “towards the right, but not too far”.

With this metaphor Popper helps us to distinguish between clock-problems and cloud-problems.

Clock-problems can be addressed by problem-solving.

Do we have a technical and complicated problem where a clear causal connection can be established and where there is time to analyse, make detailed plans and evaluate? Let´s give problem-solving a go!

This traditional linear problem-solving approach works wonders with clock problems.

Cloud-problems need to be addressed by Solution-Focus.

Cloud-problems occur frequently in organisations, usually under volatile conditions with high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. Organisations try to establish stability and predictability by introducing rules and guidelines. Nevertheless, the multitude of actors, the changing nature of their behaviours, and the effects of their interactions makes the result extremely cloud-like.

How to go about that? – Put very simply it involves iteratively asking the following questions:

1. What do we want? – Our Preferred Future
2. What do we have now? – Our platform
3. What might be signs of progress towards what we want?

This sounds simple, but you can imagine that guiding a large group of people towards what they want is a complex task and thus not easy. Complex tasks require simple heuristics, as well as skill and adaptability in the execution. A seasoned Solution-Focused practitioner needs to provide that, and be aware of the following fact:

The approach chosen needs to match the place on the cloud-and-clock scale.

So, when you encounter a problem or a challenge, and before you adopt your habitual approach, ask yourself:

Is it more of a cloud- or more of a clock-problem?

Then you can decide whether to opt for the problem-focused or the Solution-Focused approach, or for a combination of the two. My experience tells me that anything to involving people and large-scale organisational change or transformation usually requires proficiency in Solution-Focus.

Susanne Burgstaller has worked in organisational development and change for nearly 35 years. She writes about Solution-Focus, organisational development, leadership and change, and mentors agile and change coaches.


[1] Popper, K. (1966) Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man“,. In “Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach”, Washington University.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/2011/Clouds-and-Clocks.html - downloaded 210514
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

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