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In my consulting I have made it a practice to discuss with clients my philosophical approach and the foundational theories that I use to in facilitation.  I find this is often time well spent because it helps to create a shared space for our working relationship. One “shared space” discussion that is important to have with clients is whether the facilitation process is problem-based or solution-based.  In general, I approach performance consulting and facilitation from a solution perspective.    In practice, what that means is that the amount of time needed to define the current situation is way less important than the time spent thinking and acting in the direction of where a client wants to be.  So as a proportion of the overall consulting process, I believe that the time spent in problem identification should be no more than the time required to develop a clear and succinct assessment of the point from which the group or team is starting.  How the group or team got to the starting point rarely matters.  What does matter in the facilitation process is that a group or team is at point A and wants to move forward to point B and a focus on solutions moves the group forward and not backwards.  In this post, I wanted to outline five principles of a solution-focused facilitation process.

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Start with the solution:  The first step in solution-focused process is, intuitively, to start by defining the solution or range of solutions that need to be considered.  In essence, the solution is the goal that goes far enough upstream to create the performance improvement or change that matters.  For an extensive exploration of a solutions, this step could require a sophisticated process like scenario planning or conversely, it could be as simple as structuring a sequence of inquiry questions. From an appreciative inquiry approach, solutions might be “three wishes” or aspirations of a team and from a performance improvement perspective, the solutions would answer the question of what is the “optimal performance.” Whatever process is used, the point is that when you start from the solution perspective, the group is less likely to get bogged down trying to reverse engineer why the problem exists (a backwards focus)  and instead the group moves forward –and remember that facilitation is first and foremost about forward movement.

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Create objectives that move you towards the solution:  Once the solution is identified the next step is to identify interim objectives that tell you that you are moving towards the solution. Elsewhere I have written about goals and objectives and in this context it suffices to say that objectives become the  mile-markers that help you know that you are moving towards the solution.

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Build upon existing practice and experience: The next step in the solution process is to create a shared understanding of how progress is already being made towards the solution. All groups have existing practices and skills that support solutions.  Occasionally, however, I have encountered groups that practice a “collective amnesia” about their practices and experiences.  In these cases, it is important to prompt the group and draw out their existing practices and experiences that support the achievement of the solution.  Simply asking the question, “what is happening within this team and organization that supports the solution?” can change a facilitation process by getting folks to think about their strengths.

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Resource the Solution:  The fourth step in facilitating from a solution perspective is to spend time developing a resource plan to make sure that the solution can be achieved.  For example, if performance improvement is the solution, then the resources required to help create the performance improvement might include such things as job design, organizational development, staff development, or program support. As with any journey towards a new destination, a team needs both a plan and the resources to carry to plan forward.

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Document and Monitor the Plan: The fifth step in a solution process is to document and monitor the plan.  While I have written elsewhere about creating workplans and monitoring the progress towards achieving the plan, it never hurts to reinforce the point that that teams and organizations need clear expectations and a roadmap for success.  Further, teams need to be able to network with each other, have access to coaching and mentoring along the way, and have mechanisms for accountability if new solutions are to be achieved.

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As I reflect on this five-point outline, I think it reads a bit like a “Mechanix Illustrated” for facilitators.  But underneath this step-by-step approach is an underlying philosophy that needs to be attended to.  Often time, facilitators enter an agency as an outside “expert” with a toolbox (or worse –a magician’s hat) to solve the client’s “problems.”  This mechanic’s approach basically says “I can come into your agency and fix your problem in five steps.” Unfortunately, such a facilitation approach is all too common and in the hands of such a mechanic, a solution-focused approach is just a tool.  In reality, solution-focused facilitation is more than a tool and is really about pedagogy.  True solution-focused facilitation is born out of empowerment education and constructivism with both of these foundations asserting that the facilitator is a co-equal learner. Far from a mechanic’s “expert approach”, solution-focused facilitation is about co-creation. So, coming back to the opening line of this post, I want to underscore  that philosophy matters and the facilitator and client need to create a shared space around philosophy.

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I carry around in my head many truisms from the radical, innovator and philosopher Henry David Thoreau and one statement he penned is, “though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed in there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” To me, this is the heart and soul of solution-focused facilitation.

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As always, your comments are welcome.

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Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.