Managing in the face of complexitySystems & complexity

Managing in the face of complexity (part 4.4): Appropriate approaches – 4. Solution Focus

This article is part 4.4 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper A guide to managing in the face of complexity.

This section [parts 4.1 to 4.8 of the series] outlines specific methods that can be used for managing in the face of complexity. Most of these approaches were originally developed in corporate business, where the shortcomings of centralised ‘command and control’ models were first noted, but have since spread into public sector management. These approaches are aligned with the general principles for managing complex interventions outlined … [in the previous parts of this series], but each has a specific focus and is tailored for particular circumstances or purposes.

4. Solution Focus

This technique was originally developed in family therapy and has later on been used in organisational development to induce positive change within people, teams or organisations. It is based on two fundamental assumptions: there is not necessarily a logical connection between problem and solution; and that the route to the solution depends on the solution, not the problem. Therefore, attention is placed on identifying a different ‘ideal’ situation that will ‘dissolve’ the problem and on the changes required to arrive at this new situation, which are usually differences in behaviour and interaction of the people involved.

Solution Focus involves a set of questions, principles and tools1. The focus on solutions (instead of problems), the future (instead of the past), and what is going well (rather than what went wrong) leads to a pragmatic – and often very rapid – way of making progress. Problems are ‘dissolved’ by directly exploring solutions that have occurred in the past, presence and future, which helps to overcome states having previously been considered problematic.

Solution Focus is a powerful and proven approach to bring about change that avoids becoming locked in a problem-focused mode of thought. It is a minimalist approach, advocating as little change as possible (which has benefits in terms of time, cost and effort) and takes the path of least resistance. But it requires skilled facilitators or consultants who are capable of engaging in – and maintaining – a solution-focused conversation. It is particularly recommended for situations marked by negative experiences from the past or emotional burdens weighing on the relationship between the involved parties. It is also valuable in cases where detailed analysis of causes is either unfeasible (e.g. due to lack of time or information) or too cumbersome.

Next part (part 4.5): Appropriate approaches – 5. Deliberative processes.

See also these related series:

Article source: Hummelbrunner, R. and Jones, H. (2013). A guide to managing in the face of complexity. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

Header image source: pxherePublic Domain.


  1. Jackson.P.Z. and McKergow, M. (2002). Solution Focus: The Simple Way to Positive Change. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
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Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones

Authors of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) papers "A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity" and "A guide to managing in the face of complexity".

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