What Google can teach the Lib Dems: Improving the management of the Party

Google, the great innovator, have given us a great insight into how to use solution focused thinking. They saw that their best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, and are happier. Essentially, these managers do everything better. The question Google asked was: what makes them that good? And how do you do it?”

In early 2009, Google embarked on a plan code-named Project Oxygen. What they wanted was to find a way to build better bosses. So they gathered more than 10,000 observations about managers — across more than 100 variables, from various performance reviews, feedback surveys and other reports. Then they spent time coding the comments in order to look for patterns. Once they had some working theories, they figured out a system for interviewing managers to gather more data and found results of what makes a good manager.

Google started teaching the results in training programs, as well as in coaching and performance review sessions with individual employees. It paid off quickly. They had a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of their worst-performing managers.

What makes this solution focused is that it started from what was working and looked at how to do it and then learnt from this. The traditional way of understanding management in Google was that they’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, managers need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for them. So when there were problems they gave them more training in technical skill. The results of Project Oxygen surprised Google.

It turns out that that’s [technical skill is] absolutely the least important thing… Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible – Mr Bock, Google.

Google were struck by the simplicity of the rules, and the fact that anyone can apply them. And for anyone interested in learning about how to make teams work better can learn a lot from this research. While it is not new as it has confirmed what other research has shown, it shows that a solution focused approach works.

So everyone in the Lib Dems should take note and learn from this work as it may help improve internal workings of the party and local campaigns.

More Solution Focused Quotes

Formulation of Achievable Goals

50 Solution Focused Quotes

The Solution Focused Approach

For anyone interested in a simple way to understand the solution focused approach this video outlines it well. However, this is focused on working with individuals and not groups and organisations which solution focused politics is about. I will try to work on a video for this in the future

Reducing Criminal Recidivism – a different approach

The coalition government is looking to change approach to prison policy with a focus on preventing people getting into prison in the first place.  There is renewed interest in other methods of crime deterrents such community sentences or even the recent idea that criminals should say sorry to victims. The difficulty is that it is not that simple.  This was well put by Tim Starkey recently in the difficulties faced by those making the decisions and what to do about it.

The war continues to rage between the ‘prison works’ school which believes that prisons suppress criminal behaviour and the ‘colleges of crime’ school which believes that prisons increase criminality. The difficulty is that we go from one policy to another providing evidence for both schools to use to back up their argument.

The Prison Policy Initiative highlights the ‘minimalist’ school which believes that the effect of prison on offenders is minimal. This sees offenders walk into prison with their own set of attitudes and behaviours which change little while in prison. This certainly fits better with my own experience of working with offenders inside and outside of prison and reframes the problem to that being touted by the long running Micheal Howard and Ken Clarke spat.

Studies have shown that not only does prison increase recidivism but that lower risk offenders are more adversely affected by greater sentences as they were exposed to an environment typically dominated by their higher risk, more hard core peers.

If prison prevents offenders from committing more crime in the community yet fail to make an internal change in the offender (other than negatively for lower risk offenders) then nothing has changed when going back to their family, friends, and networks and the criminal activity continues. Most community-based programs focus on an internal change for the offender such as behavioural programs or sessions with their probation officer. While some manage to make a change, others do not and of those who make a change the environment they live in can drag them back to criminality.

So a project was conducted with a seriously criminal population in prisons and using a solution-focused approach with a focus on networks. These prisoners were often returned to prison as many as 3 times per year and had a long history of drug misuse and many contacts with a variety of social welfare agencies. The staff had more or less given up hope that these prisoners would be able to stay out of prison.

Prisoners were assigned to a treatment group and treatment was provided by a team consisting of a project leader and two family therapists, and lasted for an average of five sessions. This project, much like the solution-focused child protection work or the solution-focused sex offender management work, sought changes in the networks which may help to reduce recidivism.

At 12 months after release prisoners in the treatment group had a recidivism rate of 53% compared to 76% for the control group. At 16 months recidivism rates were 60% for the experimental group and 86% for the control group. The differences were statistically significant. In addition, the seriousness of recidivist offenses and length of resulting sentences was less for the solution-focused group than the control group.

By reframing the problem it allowed for a different view and opened up possible solutions and the solution-focused method with the offenders and their networks was brief in nature and produced tangible results.

The Management of Sex Offenders Leaves People At Risk – time to do something different?

I think it would be hard to find someone who was reviled more than by paedophiles, which leave many with opposing ideas of how we should manage the risk.

So far, the government’s Sex Offender Treatment Programme has been heralded as the key therapeutic intervention in the prevention of repeat offending,  The SOTP is a behavioural program which works with groups of offenders and looks to change offenders’ thoughts and behaviour, yet much of this approach has been shown by those who work on the front line to be at times naïve and irresponsible.

To put it another way. We place some of the most dangerous high risk offenders in a room together and skill them up in how professionals understand sex offending. They form links with each other and swap ideas of how to avoid detection. We then have a policy of dispersal so they are managed by professionals in different areas.

The extent of the naivety of this policy is shown when a group of SOTP graduates were dispersed to different authorities. These authorities were small and so they ended up being a few miles away from each other. They already had the links, the knowledge and brainstormed the best ways to avoid detection. For years this group continued to abuse children right under the noses of the authorities.

It is at times coupled with a penile plesmogaph (a lie detector for a penis) to identify the profile of those at risk from the offender. Those working in the field know that that has meant offenders have masturbated before being tested to reduce arousal to be seen as a lower risk.

The proportion of sexual offenders who are reconvicted of further offending is known to be low.  However, this only means that they have not been caught for offending and not necessarily that they have not reoffended.

A solution focus would start with the end result in mind, which would be that there is no further abuse perpetrated. Any policy or treatment would therefore need to have at the very least a significant reduction in reoffending. However, the actual results for the SOTP are poor with reconviction rate over two years being 2.6 per cent compared to 2.8 per cent for untreated sex offenders; a negligible difference.

It has not escaped everyone that this behavioural focused group work is not working as David Wilson, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central England says these interventions are founded more on political expediency than on solid evidence.

The problem is that people are not talking to those who work with sex offenders who may have good ideas of doing something different and something better. Probation officers themselves have admitted to lacking the skills and training necessary to protect the public from sex offenders making it harder to collect different ideas of what may work.

Canada took a different approach to managing sex offenders in the community by developing schemes aimed at befriending them.  The community works in collaboration with released sex offenders, who are given the chance to become a “core member” of a “circle of support” of volunteers.

The core premise, as it is in solution focused work, is that the community should use the resources it already has. The offender is therefore included in a circle of trust, rather than excluded which would drive him underground – or into the arms of the only people who will want to be his friend – other sex offenders.

This approach reduced re-offending by 70% It was brought to the UK in 2002 and there are currently 63 running across England and Wales. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation who run the projects says of the 35 offenders who have taken part in their circles project so far, only three have been found to have re-offended.

Improving Schools for Pupils and Teachers

Imagine a school where there are drastically fewer discipline referrals, where students develop their own academic strategies for success, where parents welcome the chance to come to school and participate and where teachers and students build a common purpose.

This would contrast significantly to how many schools operate at the moment in the UK. Discipline is a significant problem in schools with many exclusions and suspensions on a daily basis, with 1 in 10 pupils being excluded. Secondary school teachers cite poor pupil discipline and behavioural issues as reasons for job dissatisfaction leaving the profession with concerns about teacher retention.

The application of solution-focused approaches with students and in school settings has grown over the past 10 years and has been applied to a number of behavioral and academic problems. It has shown promise as a useful approach in working with at-risk students in a school setting, specifically helping students reduce the intensity of their negative feelings, manage their conduct problems, and externalizing behavioral problems.

There are many examples of using solution focused techniques in schools and this is an example. A principle of solution finding is the change in the relationship between those who have power and those who do not – in this case the teacher and pupil. By creating a different relationship which can work together on problems it moves the difficulties from conflict to collaboration. An impressive display of this can be seen in the work of Dr Ross Greene who outlines the research and the results on his websites here and here.

While Dr Greene does not call his work solution focused education, this is exactly what it is through his approach in researching and in the practice of changing the relationship and solution finding with the pupils. There are many others who are using solution focused work in schools with some good results showing that there are different approaches which can be taken to get better results for pupils and staff.

Some Evidence for Solution Focused Thinking

The attraction to a solution focused approach is that it is strengths based, collaborative, and relatively simple which produces good results. There is a lot of research on solution focused brief therapy where it originated and I do not intend to do a literature review of this as this can be found elsewhere. A good place to look would be this blog on solution focused change. However, some of the research is important to solution focused politics.

Politics seeks to improve the lives of its citizens and depending on your point of view, the way to achieve this varies. Solution focused politics believes that a collaboration between the government or government officials with its citizens is the best way to produce meaningful change and effective services or government. Successive governments have used a problem focused approach to solving problems by analysing problems first (see here).

However, when looking to make change, solution-focused questions have been shown to be more effective than problem-focused questions. While a problem-focused approach can produce good results, a solution-focused approach increases positive affect, decreases negative affect, increases self-efficacy as well as increases and understanding of the nature of the problem. All of which can make a big difference in the final result of recommending changes in policy.

While the approach was originally used in therapy, 62.5% of people who had received Solution Focused Brief Therapy stated that it was the approach which was most helpful rather than any other aspect of the therapy which they had received. The importance of this is that it shows the approach effective in working with problems and creating meaningful change. Something which can be translated anywhere where change is needed, such as policy. Indeed, some research shows the approach to be better at working with problems than no treatment or the current standard services.

One reason for this is that the approach seeks positive outcomes for most people. This is because when we use solution-talk, people are more likely to talk about change. The more people use solution-talk, the more likely they are to carry out the agrees actions or buy into the final decisions. This makes it the perfect approach to develop collaborative services, collaborative policies and collaborative government and making politics  more than just 11 votes in our lifetime.

Solution Focused Politics makes the news but fails to be recognised

One principle of social focused work is that we are already doing everything we need to be doing to solve the problems we have, we just need to do more of what is working and less of what is not. This principle should be a principle of politics too, but unfortunately it is not.

While it seems to have taken the Guardian a few years to cotton on to the fact that there are wider applications to what is being tried in adult social care, their recent article shows that solution focused politics is happening and is working in many areas.

Their analysis is that “we can’t afford [public services], it is frequently self-defeating and it doesn’t fit the way we live other aspects of our lives” and that “we could end up carrying on with more of the same (just with less money), rather than recognising that it was “more of the same” that got us here in the first place”. A call to do something different.

Their focus is on personal budgets which puts people more in control of the funding that supports the services they require. The results were originally promising but have later found to be better than expected (see the addendum of the SCIE report).  For information on personal budgets see here. However, the Guardian goes on to suggest this could be used to transform public services.

What this article is essentially pointing out though is that solution focused thinking, which resulted in this policy, works. They state “at the heart of this agenda is the notion of people not as passive recipients of pre-purchased services nor or of “consumers” taking their “custom” elsewhere – but of citizens, helping to co-design their own support and their own solutions”. This could be taken out of any solution focused handbook and shows the values of solution focused work (solution focused thinking has been around social care for a while – see previous post).

However, what the article fails to outline the approach and how this led to the policy in the first place. I assume this is because it is not known as solution focused thinking is not big in the political world. The issue is that these seemingly good ideas cannot just be rolled out to other areas as other areas are very different and the good idea then becomes a bad one.

But what can be rolled out is the thinking behind the policy: Treat people as worth doing business with, who have their own strengths, skills, abilities and resources, and that people have their own solutions. This meets people in their model of the world, transforms them from being a passive service user or choosy customer of services to being active service stakeholders, while it starts with the end in mind and focuses on what is working.

This site argues for the use of such thinking being used in other areas of the political process as well as using other solution focused techniques and methods with the stakeholders of the services to create the services they want in the way they want them – as they did in social care and personal budgets. Unfortunately the idea has not reached the mass media so the news becomes personal budgets and not the thinking which created it, which kind of misses the point and the potential for the fundamental change that the article wishes for.


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