Interview with Alan Kay

By Coert Visser (2010)

Alan Kay, owner of The Glasgow Group, is a Canadian solution-focused change management consultant specializing in areas such as strategic planning, brand and customer experience implementation, stakeholder consultation and client-supplier alignment. Alan’s work is widely influenced by the theory and application of the solution-focused approach to encourage attitudinal and behavioural change within an organization, and to help corporate and individual clients become more strategically focused. 

Hi Alan, When did the potential of the solution-focused approach first hit you?

It was about an hour into the first basic Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) training I received from Jim Duval at Brief Therapy Training Centres-International in Toronto. I had three thoughts: This isn't easy to understand. I've been waiting all my life to find something like this and I don't dare use this family therapy language on my business clients.

The feelings of confusion and excitement kept coming and going throughout the 2-day training. My colleague, Rick Wolfe and I were in a room of social workers, some of whom challenged Jim’s ideas, including how he was teaching the course. Jim also kept comparing SFBT with traditional psychotherapy, not very politely. So, ‘doing what works’ didn’t relate to what was going on in the room. It wasn’t until another round of training that I later realized the behaviour was common in this realm – it was to be taken seriously, not literally. Conversely, during the role-model and practice sessions I kept encountering layers of wonderful insights about how to make this work for organizations. Then there was constant mention and video demo tapes of a certain Insoo Kim Berg from Milwaukee which created even more exciting insights and feelings of wonder about how on earth she engaged so effectively with unhappy families, stayed out of the emotions and helped them make progress.

Anyway, not realizing fully how transformational an experience the two days had been, I went to a variety of clients' meetings over the next week implementing what I had learned and immediately noticed a significant difference in the dialogue and the outcomes. In reality, I didn’t have to adjust the language a lot.

Could you describe an example of one of your very first attempts to apply this stuff in a client meeting? What did you do, what worked well and how did you notice?

The early encounters after my initial SF training were exciting. The overriding impression was that I was simply asking better questions and that clients were reacting differently as a result.

One client team was feeling stressed by the scale of their success. The organization had grown dramatically in size and reputation. At the strategic planning session the mood was somewhat tense. "What do you do well?", I asked. "Not much", was the answer. Theatrically I said, "That’s odd, your industry journal says that you are now the #2 player in your sector…in the world! Something must be working!" The dam of skepticism burst and long lists of their competencies were quickly generated.

Another client, legendary for their silos and politics, was very fearful that the IT strategy process they wished us to facilitate would be very difficult to develop and implement. Also, consultants were not welcomed with open arms. During our proposal development interviews we kept asking, "What’s working so far in your IT efforts?" Almost immediately, the concerns they had about our credibility to help them were greatly reduced.

At one session I received feedback that I was overusing the term, 'how do you see this being useful to you?' While I knew the question was doing no harm, it reminded me not to get ahead of the client or use language that may not work for them.

Several colleagues with whom I worked expressed their reservations about the SF process. I took them seriously, not literally. Over time, though they didn’t express a lot of enthusiasm for what I was doing, I noticed they were using some of the SF language.

While the solution-focused approach is very popular among Canadian psychotherapists, I know you are one of the few Canadian professionals who use it in organizational consultancy and coaching. At the same time, you are rather active in the large international network of solution-focused organizational professionals, aren't you? Can you talk a bit about this international network and what it means to you?

The joy of being an SF organizational practitioner in Canada is you can't use the name to sell it so you have to do what works for your clients. Having to be credible in the outcomes you help clients achieve, not your SF process alone raises the bar of your performance expectations. That has been very helpful.

The international SF network has been incredibly useful in bringing understanding surrounding applications to the transfer of the wonderful SF therapy model in the world of organizations. Since the SF organizational people first came together informally ten years ago a diverse community of SF consultants, coaches and trainers have built both an informal and, increasingly a formal body of theoretical and application knowledge.

Movements of this nature often spark interest and activity, but somehow the centre doesn’t hold together and the associations that spring up may not sustain. Not so with SF. The diversity of the practitioners has resulted in a variety of organizing groups, almost all with a common cause – around the world. The key issue will be to bring SF to a wider audience, particularly at the organizational leadership level. That said, albeit modest in size so far, SF is now on the cusp on leading organizational change practices and shows signs of great things to come. As we say in SF, to speed things up, go slow.

You are also involved in Interaction, the journal of SF in organisations. Could you tell a bit about what the aim of this journal is and what your involvement is?

The Journal is largely Solution Focused Consulting and Training's link to the academic world. It has an excellent editorial team lead by Dr Mark McKergow MBA and from my perspective a superb review board. The purpose of the Journal, as I see it, is to advocate the efficacy of SF, purse quality practices and in the process to bring solutions focus into the mainstream of organizational change.

My involvement so far has been to pen a recent article. My wish for the Journal is that it addresses both the science of SF and deepens understanding of the practical applications that organizations seek.

I believe that the Journal combined with SFCT's body of cases compiling in the association's peer review section will further the understanding of solutions focus applications in organizations- SF is at a tipping point of achieving the respect that it deserves.

The bigger issue is, how do we commercialize SF applications in organizations? History is littered with great ideas and innovations that never made it into the mainstream because no one person or group took it upon themselves to get folks to use and pay for it regularly.

So there is work to be done, then … Now, imagine we leap ahead 2 years after this interview and imagine SF has developed quite well - it has become better known and accepted in organizations. Could you try to picture that situation? Could you share some thoughts about what you think that situation would look like and what would be better?

The picture is clear! In 2012/3 innovative organizations have recognized the opportunity to make SF their primary change tool (among a number of successful approaches) helping the organization a) move beyond the self-imposed crisis mode that it used to live with and b) constantly set new targets for measurable improvement, including, but not exclusively, financials.

The organization will have embraced and encapsulated approaches like Tony Hsieh’s method to Delivering Happiness, e.g., Profit, Passion, Purpose…through its people. In the post-industrial, technology-leveraged organization, its people will be seen as the path to prosperity for the owners, the staff and the stakeholders who contribute to making it work.

Customers will see the organization determined to bring them maximum value the way they want it. In not-for-profit and public organizations, the focus will be on delivering not profit, but clearer and better outcomes for the communities they serve.


michael cardus said...

thank you - this is something I have been hoping for leadership and Organizational development in the vein of SFBT...I have been reading and learning plus using SF in my coaching and development company and have found great results.

sussan Öster said...

Thank you very much for writing this down!I think it's very useful to read experienced SF-consultants answers to spcific questions. It helps me to explain the SF key elements to others and to spread it.Also especially nice for me to read about Mr Kay since I had the pleasure to meet him in Switzerland at SOL summer retreat. Yours Sussan Öster, Sweden

Coert Visser said...

Thx Michael and Sussan!

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