Hi5 is an IT consultancy in Umeå, Sweden. They develop software and provide bespoke IT solutions to their customers around their region. From 2002 to 2013, their revenue growth was 3.4% per year – but from 2013 to 2018 it was 52%. Not only that, profitability actually increased too – from 3.7% to 4.1%.
How did they do that?
In 2011 Niklas attended a conference on “Solutions Focus.” He was deeply impressed, and took the ideas back home - where his colleagues wondered what he’d been smoking! But he won people over, brought in some training, and they applied SF to every aspect of Hi5. Along the way they generated some amazing results that contributed to this remarkable increase in growth-rate:
- More efficient planning workshops with customers - hours instead of days
- Those planning workshops also increased flexibility on the customer side, resulting in a better service at lower cost.
- Customer feedback: “There’s something different in having a dialogue with you that feels better, makes it more fun and rewarding to work with you”
- A “monster” project, which they estimated would take 12-18 months, was competed in 2 months.
- Faster decision-making – for example, a 2 year deadlock resolved in 5 minutes
- Meetings that are 3x more effective (in the same length of time)
- Performance Appraisals that people look forward to – and after which, people “can’t wait to get started.”
- Even during the training workshops there were “at least five really big WOW moments,” for example one participant saying “I’ve been thinking about this problem all summer and now, in a matter of minutes, it’s all clear to me exactly what I need to do.”
When I interviewed Niklas in 2018, he said, "I think this is probably the best tool we have found so far for impacting our bottom line."
Probably the best tool we have found so far for impacting our bottom line.
How did all this happen?
Culture of Immediate Engagement & Contribution
The story starts with Niklas’ wife, Pernilla, inviting him to a conference in Budapest. The topic was “Solutions Focus in Organisations.” Niklas was basically sceptical, but went along with the strategy of “keep a low profile, listen and keep quiet, maybe get one or two leadership tips – and if not, have a nice vacation.”
This strategy “lasted about 10 minutes!” What he encountered was a culture that immediately started drawing out his expertise, and enabling him to make a contribution right from the very beginning. He was immediately very impressed, and wondered what it would be like if he had the same culture in his organisation – what difference would that make?
Better than Kaizen?
The next thing that impressed him was some inspiring case studies: “One that I especially remember is from a company in Japan that it was almost 100-years old, that had been doing the traditional Japanese kaizen thing, working with eliminating problems, and so on. They introduced Solutions Focus, and the impact was stunning.”
The company was ZARCOS. Solutions Focus had contributed to increased productivity and the highest profit in their 95 year history. The most dramatic result was in employee retention - across the business employee turnover went from 10.4% to 6.3%, and in the factory where SF had been introduced it went from 10.1% to 0%: in two years, nobody left!
The most dramatic result was in employee retention...after they used Solutions Focus in one factory, for two years nobody left!
In another case study, one branch of a Japanese bank had introduced SF, and gone from the bottom 5 to the top 5 performers in the space of a year.
Niklas’ conclusion was that if a Japanese company, that is so brilliant at finding and fixing problems, could get such dramatic results, then there must be something there that’s worth doing.
With Toyota, we use Solutions Focus when we’re really stuck. What amazes us is that we can always find a next step – and when you have one next step, you can find another, and then things are moving again”. Koto Cho, Chinoewa, Japan
What is “Solutions Focus”?
Solutions Focus is an approach to collaborative problem solving that’s particularly suited to complex situations. It transforms the conversations so as to generate progress more quickly, easily and enjoyably – often a lot more quickly, easily and enjoyably, as you’ll see in the examples below.
Changes are made in a much more easy-going way that before - it's quicker and more fun.
Solutions Focus is used by leaders, managers, coaches, facilitators and many others around the world, in organisations such as IBM, Freescale Semiconductor, PwC, P&G, Sky, National Australia Bank, European Investment Bank, PepsiCo, BP, Genetech, Canon, Lufthansa, and many others, large and small, around the world.
How did SF generate such acceleration in revenue growth?
Hi5 applied Solutions Focused both externally with customers, and internally within the business.
With customers, they made improvements through the whole sales and service-delivery cycle: making the sales process more customer-focused, delivering a better service, naturally more productive followup conversations and more repeat business.
Internally, they started having meetings that are 3x more efficient, faster decision-making, business planning, solving of complex problems and accelerated people-development. Furthermore, the organisation became more flexible and responsive to changing market needs.
Let’s look at each of these areas in turn.
Competitive Advantage through improved Interactions with Customers
Niklas says that, “We get competitive advantage through working differently with our customers.” Their customers say things like, "There is something different you do. There's something different in having a dialogue with you that feels better, that makes it more fun or more rewarding to work with you. We cannot exactly say what it is, but something is different."
Our customers say, ‘There’s something different in having a dialogue with you that feels better, that makes it more fun and rewarding to work with you’
Sales conversations that produce a better result for all
In the old way of working, the sales approach was simple: find a customer need or problem; suggest a solution; convince the customer to place the order (with argument, persistence and sometimes discounts).
Now that Hi5’s sales people are all trained in Solutions Focus, the approach has changed – it’s a dialogue about where the customer wants to go. The questions are much more creative, such as "If this project was just fantastic and we would come into this office a year from now, what would be different?"
Niklas says that this sort of conversation “unlocks so many things that we would not have had in that dialogue before. Before we would meet them and they will say, ‘We need a new storage system. We need this much megabytes of storage, and we need this IO performance,’ and so on. It would be a technical discussion and then we'd maybe discuss some strategies around what vendor that would be a good fit and how we would design this.
“But when we instead ask these questions like, "What would be different? What will this solution do for you? What are your greatest expectations that you can get out of this?" we get so many more clues on what to deliver. Sometimes it's something completely different. Maybe it's not a storage system, maybe it's a new something else that will be a much lower hanging fruit in achieving this.
The result is that the customer feels that Hi5 is much more on their side - and they get higher value solutions at a lower cost
Planning Workshops – reduced from days to hours, producing better results
The next stage is to sit down with customers, and ask the same sort of questions at a more detailed level. For example, "What are the best things that could come out of this?” “Imagine that we’ve done this project, and following projects, what will be different at the end? What difference will this make?”
For example, one large public sector customer asked for a system that, in the view of the Hi5 consultants, would have “cemented a complex and inefficient way of working.” Not only that, it would have required a lot of customisation – so it would have been expensive to deliver. The Hi5 team were very confident the customer wouldn’t be happy with the result! Previously, though, they would have had trouble persuading the customer to change their minds, and would most probably have ended up delivering what was asked for rather than what was really needed.
With Solution-Focused workshops they were able help the customer generate a new set of requirements, much more aligned to their real needs. In this case, the customer got a system that was simpler and more efficient to use, and allowed responsibility to be distributed through the organisation. It was also quicker and easier to build, at a lower cost.
SF also helps reduce waste. Traditional questions and workshops reveal what’s wrong and what the unmet needs are. The result is frequently a brand new system that solves all these pressing problems – but doesn’t include some basic functionality that people were relying on. But with SF, there’s a big emphasis on appreciating what’s already working, to make sure that doesn’t get broken, and to build on it.
This plays into an Agile way of working, “Now, after just a couple of hours in a meeting, we produce so many results – straight after the first meeting – that it’s not a question if this is a good way of working. We prove it immediately. It’s sensational.”
So the SF planning workshops produce a set of requirements more aligned with the customer’s real needs, which can be delivered more quickly and at less cost.
Furthermore, these workshops were actually shorter than the previous requirements meetings they’d been having – reduced from several days to just 4 hours in this case. Customers say things like, "Wow, what we’ve done here in four hours, it's amazing. It would normally take days and we really don't understand what happened, but that was really, really efficient in a very short period of time.”
More Repeat Business
There’s another benefit for Hi5: these workshops “reveal everything that will make the customer really happy when they finally get the invoice. That makes for a really good follow-up meeting – instead of just checking that technical details conform to a contract, the conversation is about the actual value delivered.
“This highlights the successes of the projects in a better way. Where previously you would bring them a quote for something they thought they needed, and since they're not experts on IT, they're experts on what they're doing, they sometimes don't understand what they need in terms of the technical stuff. We would not have a good follow-up because we would not know what they wanted actually to achieve with this. So, all we could do is follow-up, ‘Did we deliver the things that was in the things that we quoted?’”
So the followup meetings go better, the customer is more pleased with the results – and Hi5 is already aware of what else the customer might need. So, “it's almost a no-brainer to understand that the customer will like this and will want to continue to work with us.”
As well as improved interactions with customers, Hi5 also found that SF improved the way the Hi5 worked internally too. Niklas said that “it's like greasing the organization in every aspect.” They’ve found SF can help produce more efficient meetings, faster decision-making, business planning that engages people more fully, solving complex problems more quickly, and accelerated people-development.
it's like greasing the organisation in every aspect.
The Hydra – estimated 12 months, completed in 2
Hi5 had a closely guarded secret. Over the years their server room had accumulated more and more complexity – it had got completely out of control. They called it "The Hydra" because as soon as they chopped off one of it's heads, it would grow another one (another complex problem that urgently needed solving).
After 3 meetings with the sharpest brains in the company, they estimated that it would take 12-18 months to resolve the issues and get it back under control. It began to feel urgent - on one occasion they came really, really close to losing information for a customer. That weekend, while out skiing, Niklas received a long email from one of Hi5’s best engineers, Kris, saying he was going to resign if things stayed like this.
So on Monday the two of them had a 2 hour meeting. They used the Solutions Focused “Future Perfect” tool to generate a clear direction, and some concrete possibilities for action. That enabled them to proceed incrementally – taking small steps in the right direction, learning what works along the way.
By Wednesday, Kris was happily back on board: “for the first time in my life, I see light at the end of the tunnel”
On Monday I was ready to quit. Two days later, for the first time in my life I, see light at the end of the tunnel. Kris, key technical expert at Hi5
After 2 months everything was in place – they had tamed the Hydra, they felt completely in control and there was a clear process in place for further progress.
The Hydra wasn’t just a one-off – Niklas said that “Anytime we run into something that is really tricky, or we find an area where we want to develop something really quickly, we have great tools today to do that." The result is that "things move forward a lot more smoothly and quickly.”
Faster decision making & more productive meetings
Hi5 had been founded on the principle that “people really are our greatest asset.” Decision-making is thoroughly shared throughout the organisation - as Niklas puts it, “If it’s a small decision I make it myself; it’s a medium decision, the management team makes it; but for a really big decision, everyone in the business makes it together.” As you can imagine, this made for remarkable levels of engagement – but can make for slow decision-making.
Solutions Focus provides a way to maintain the high levels of empowerment and collaboration – but make decisions for more quickly. For example, one 2 year deadlock was resolved in 5 minutes.
Overall, they found they could have shorter meetings, fully focused on the desired result, and every single meeting producing significant forward motion. Nilkas finds that they now get three times the results in the same amount of time.
Meetings are now three times more effective, in the same amount of time.
Business planning that engages the whole business
They were even able to apply SF principles to business planning – engaging everybody in a “quick and inspiring” process. The result is a one-page business plan that is co-created, co-owned, sets direction and gets things moving. They were worried that employees might not have the skills to develop a business plan – but they found that the team produced lots of great ideas, creating a really valuable direction for the business.
Performance appraisals that people look forward to!
To help people take charge of their own development, Hi5 threw out the traditional, unpopular and time-consuming appraisal system, replacing it with Solution Focused “development conversations.”
The manager’s job is to ask questions, to help the individual to evaluate their own performance, identify what’s already working well and what progress would look like. They identify small, actionable steps for improvement.
The manager’s goal is to keep coaching until they can look at what the individual has written and say, “yes, that’s a good plan.”
They found that the individual almost always comes up with an excellent evaluation and plan – the manager rarely needs to add anything. And of course when the individual has planned it themselves, they really want to make it happen. “They usually can’t wait to get started!” Niklas enthuses.
They have a toolbox that can help them be successful in a way they have never been before.
Faster Change – that sticks
In today’s fast moving world, one of the biggest challenges organisations face is to respond quickly enough to change. If the pace of change in the environment is faster than the pace of change in the organisation, then the organisation dies – it’s as simple as that.
Niklas reports that, “We've had lots of organizational and other changes that have forced us to sit down and understand what we need to do differently.” Solutions focus provides, “Great tools for doing this really, really quickly, which has been most helpful. Most companies that grow that much will not be able to keep profits going. So, it's a trade-off between growth and profit many times. We've grown and kept being profitable during that entire time.”
“All these things make our company a lot more agile and adaptable to all kinds of change that we need to face and address. We can react to things really, really quickly and successfully.”
The experience is different too: “Changes are made in a much more easy-going way than before.” It’s quicker and more fun – and that’s a “dramatic change” in and of itself.
Moreover, change actually happens and stays there. In the old days, people would have conversations like, “Haven’t we solved this already?” and then they’d realise, “Yeah, we did it for a while but then forgot about it.” But now, when changes are co-created, they find that the new way of working sticks.
Was it just SF?
So, as Niklas puts it, “Solutions Focus brings for better and more constructive dialogues everywhere.”
Was that the sole reason for their growth going from 3.4% to 52% per year, in such a dramatic and sustained way?
Niklas said, “I cannot say that Solutions Focus is the only reason for this, but it's definitely part of the success story. Without a doubt, we would not have been able to manage the change that we have done over these years” without Solutions Focus – more than doubling headcount and quadrupling turnover in 3 years.
Solutions Focus makes for more constructive dialogues everywhere.
Adopting Solutions Focus
After his first encounter with SF at the conference in Budapest, how did Niklas bring SF into his organisation?
He was struck by how easy it was to get started – he found it a “very simple language that was spoken. So, it was very easy to understand, and I could very easily understand that what they were doing was working. So, it was a very, very quick thing to understand the mechanisms, it resonated with me very, very quickly.”
So naturally he just started applying it – but soon realised that there’s a subtlety to it. It’s as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. It’s an approach, a culture you need to experience and get the feel of. As he put it, “Solutions focus is seemingly a very simple method” but “I think it’s really a craftsman ship that needs to be practised a lot.”
So he called me in to deliver training. Even in the first 2 day workshop, “there were at least five really big WOW moments.” For example, one participant said, “I’ve been thinking about this problem all summer and now, in a matter of minutes, it’s all clear to me exactly what I need to do.”
“We had lots of similar moments” said Niklas.
My recollection was of doing a coaching demo with the Head of Consulting Services. The demo would normally take 20 minutes or more. In this case, after just a few minutes I asked particular, “Resources” question. Immediately he remembered a time when he’d solved a similar problem elsewhere – and the coaching session was over! At the time I was a little disappointed (I enjoy coaching!), but of course this is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the appreciative, resource-focused SF approach, and how it can unlock progress remarkably quickly.
Niklas appreciated how the “formal training helped us to become better and it also helped that we used it and practised it all over, and over and over again.“ He valued the way that they were able to practice using SF in ways that were very close to their everyday work, frequently addressing live business issues during the workshop. I remember him being particularly pleased that in the section on meetings and team-coaching they were able to have a meeting they really needed to have anyway – and make real progress with it.
So, in summary, Hi5 have been on a journey, which
- Generated “at least five really big WOW moments,” right at the first training workshop, for example, “I’ve been thinking about this problem all summer and now, in a matter of minutes, it’s all clear to me exactly what I need to do.”
- Shortened planning workshops with customers from days to hours
- Increased customer flexibility, so they could deliver better service at lower cost
- Changed they way they related to customers, so they said that working with Hi5, "feels better, makes it more fun and rewarding to work with you”
- Completed a “monster” project, which they estimated would take 12-18 months, in just 2 months.
- Accelerated decision-making – for example, a 2 year deadlock was resolved in 5 minutes, and meetings in general are 3x more effective (in the same length of time)
- Created Performance Appraisals that people look forward to – and after which, people “can’t wait to get started.”
- Increased their growth-rate from 3.4% per year to 52% per year, while maintaining and even increasing profitability
Niklas described the effect as "like greasing the organisation in every aspect", making for "more constructive dialogues everywhere." He concluded that it was "probably the best tool we have found so far for impacting our bottom line."
Would you like these benefits for your business?
One of the foundations of SF is to make rapid progress by proceeding incrementally - in small steps. For Niklas, his first step was to attend a SOLWorld conference. Many other organisations like to start with coaching or team-coaching - with the dual benefit of solving a pressing business problem as well as exploring the approach.
Where to start? Why not email me email@example.com (or call +44-7981-097768)? We can talk about the specific needs of your organisation, and if we're a good fit, schedule 30 minute demonstration. This can be on-site or over a video-link such as Zoom.
About the Author
Roy Marriott is a Solutions Focused Trainer and Coach, with a background in software development and research.
He started his career with a degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University. He worked at BT and HP Research Labs, and consulted for BBC, Acorn (now ARM) and Phillips.
Roy started using Solutions Focus in 1992, and began his professional coaching career in 1994. He has been training leaders, managers and coaches in Solutions Focused Coaching since 2005.
Roy is also a developer of Solutions Focused training models that are in use around the world. These are focused on applications such as Change without Resistance, Delegation, Negotiation, Time Mastery, Resilience and so on.
Roy has coached and trained leaders and coaches from organisations such as ARM, Bain Consulting, Bupa, Cambridge University, DisplayLink, European Space Agency, Ideagen, Microsoft, NHS, Nestle, Nationwide Building Society, and many others around the UK and northern Europe.
You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him on +44-7981-097768.