Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Using small actions

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and the starting on the first one.

Mark Twain

Why are small actions (rather than large, heroic actions) likelier to help us make progress?

Successful change frequently hinges on small actions that people take. The action gets us unstuck and helps us to move effectively in a world that changes in complex, unstoppable ways. It is often astonishing how small a well-chosen action can be, yet still make a big difference, which is why small actions should be a big topic in your constructive conversations. Who is going to do what?

Small actions have several advantages over big actions. They are both easier to propose and easier to take. They require less confidence and less energy. Therefore they are more likely to be taken.

And it may be that a small action is all that is needed to get a situation unstuck. The new circumstances that then arise may be more conducive to further easy action.

A small step has less chance of severely disturbing other people who may be involved. If they are suddenly faced with huge changes, they may start to resist, whereas a small alteration may be less noticeable and less challenging as the change begins.

Small actions also have more of an experimental feel. If they work, we can do more of them. If not, we can have another go, trying something else.

The kinds of actions to discuss and subsequently take fall into two basic categories.

1. Doing more of what works:

  • The most likely to succeed
  • The easiest
  • A random choice of what might work
  • Noticing what works
  • Acting as if the future perfect had arrived.

2. Stopping doing what doesn’t work and doing something different instead.

  • Usually something from the first category will suffice, but if it does not, then doing something different in relation to your project may be the best action to take.

Useful questions

Questions to ask include

  • If you were to take a small action in relation to what we’ve been talking about, what would it be?
  • What actions might we take that stand a good chance of getting us closer to what we want here?
  • What are the next small steps for each of us to take?
  • We are at ‘n’ on the scale now; what would it take to get us one point higher?
  • What else needs to happen?
  • What’s the smallest step we could take?

It is desirable that the person with the issue decides the small action, engendering responsibility for the next steps.

Small actions should also be

  • Specific
  • Able to be taken in the next day or week
  • Tangible – doing or noticing, rather than thinking about something.

Checking for suitability

As discussed, the smaller the action, the better. So, what do you do if somebody tells you their next step and you think it’s a rather large action, or if you’re not convinced it’s a well chosen action?

The temptation here is to challenge them to come up with a smaller action or to question their ability to choose appropriate steps. This can have the impact of making the person wrong, leading to disagreement. Some suggestions for questions, should you wish to check the suitability of the small action, include

  • What’s a small step you can take towards this action?
  • How will this action help you achieve what you are aiming for?
  • On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is very confident and 1 is not confident at all, how confident are you you’ll take this action?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that this is a well-chosen action that will lead to progress?
  • What are the benefits to you and others of you taking this step?

The small action is a tool to be wielded with skill and care. We are interested in people choosing their small steps well. The ideal steps arise from the possibilities generated during solution-focused conversations, and may be checked for people’s commitment to taking them and for their belief that they will make a useful difference.

In the interactional world, when the action is executed, it creates ripple effects or changes in the dynamics, and progress is made – with well-chosen small actions leading to progress towards a future perfect.