As CEO of an IT consultancy, Niklas knows how crucial security is to his customers. Yet there was one potential issue he and his team had been grappling with for over 2 years. Despite 20 or 30 attempts, they hadn't even been able to define the problem.
Then he changed tack, and within 5 minutes they had generated a breakthrough. Two weeks later they’d implemented a quick fix to halve the risk, and fully designed a long term solution.
What was going wrong?
How had the team got stuck in a deadlock that had lasted so long?
Basically, they'd been trying to precisely define the problem. When they tried, all sorts of questions had arisen. Is this really a problem? How much of a problem is it? What is the REAL problem? Are (various other related problems) really connected? Why haven't we already done something about it? Was someone to blame? The list goes on - and they couldn't agree answers to any of those questions.
And as Niklas put it, "Our technical people are VERY skilled and where we usually end up is in an endless 'battle of skills' focused on who can best define the problem using knowledge, experience, hearing of what has happened elsewhere, or even only the loudest voice as the ammo. Focus gradually shifts to winning the discussion and the reason for being there in the first place (actually creating some positive change) is forgotten about."
How did the breakthrough happen?
Niklas and his team came on a training in "Solutions Focused Coaching and Leadership." One of the topics we covered was how to be more productive in meetings.
So at the next meeting, something different happened.
As Niklas put it, "After 15 minutes of this 'problem talk,' I realized what was about to happen, and decided to use our new 'Solutions Focused' tools. I suggested we for a minute parked the 'defining the problem discussion' and instead turned our attention to what the situation would look like if we started out with a blank piece of paper and designed something new that was 'the best of the best'."
What if we started out with a blank piece of paper, and designed something new that was ‘the best of the best'?
The team immediately started thinking and communicating differently. Their discussion became much more productive, and within 5 minutes they had worked out what they were aiming for. And the amazing thing is that there was no disagreement at all about this.
In "Solutions Focus" this is known as the "Future Perfect." Niklas asked a question that helped the team "leap over the problem", and instead focus their attention on what was most needed.
What happened next?
So they'd agreed on what they wanted, but what happened next?
Their next step was to identify what they already had in place that could help them move in the desired direction. This is another classic move from "Solutions Focus", to find what's already working, marshall resources, and build on that.
The team found a couple of obvious resources, including ONE that very few people knew about. That one turned out to be an essential building block in moving forward.
Then they listed some possible next steps and ended up with many both small and large things they could do. They selected three that they could get on with immediately.
Before ending the meeting, Niklas asked if anyone had anything to add. As he wrote, "There was nothing! No more need for going back to defining the problem. And the smile on people's faces told me that for the first time there was true belief that we would this time really "fix" the problem. At least we had a very good beginning!"
Did they solve the problem?
When I spoke to Niklas 2 weeks later, he told me that "two out of the three steps we agreed on have already been taken, and we have now raised our security bar from a 3.5 to 6.5 on a scale from 1 to 10. This has been done by implementing a quick and dirty solution that immediately helps us assess the current situation, and also be alerted when a possible security issue comes up in the future."
They had also done some design work for the more long term solution that they designed at the meeting.
2 months later, they had implemented a fully robust solution - to the problem that had eluded them for 2 years!
What's more Niklas tells me that across all their meetings, this Solutions Focused approach has trebled their efficiency - they are getting three times as much done in the same amount of time.
What can we learn from this story?
If you're seeing deadlock and disagreement in a meeting, check to see where people are focused. Are they going round in circles trying to define "the real problem"? Have they lost sight of what they're trying to achieve?
If so, try shifting to a more "Solutions Focused" approach. Just start asking questions like “What are we aiming for here?” and see how things start to change. As the desired direction becomes clearer, you can progress to questions that help marshall resources, and then generate immediate action.