Shining the spotlights on solutions
By Fenton Whelan
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Focusing on solutions is far more powerful than focusing on problems.

Focusing on solutions energizes those involved in reform efforts

Many development projects begin with extensive analysis of the problems and their root causes. We find that an approach which focuses mainly on solutions is both more impactful and more energizing for those involved.

We replace or compliment the usual problem-focused questions on the left with the solution-focused questions on the right.

Problem-focused Solution-focused
Where is performance lowest? What is driving the lower performance? Where is performance highest? What lessons can we learn from those areas?
Who is performing worst? What explains the lower performance? Who is performing best? Can they lead or coach others?
When is performance lowest? What are the reasons for lower performance? When is performance highest? Can we lengthen the high-performing periods?
What drives lower performance? How can we address root causes? What drives improved performance? How can we generate more of it?

Understanding the context helps to understand the performance

When looking for examples of high performance, it is important to keep aware of context. Pockets of moderately high performance in challenging areas, for instance, will often yield more insights than very high performance in less challenging areas.

For example, we studied immunisation coverage in Nigeria. A view of DPT3 coverage yielded a bleak picture, with low coverage and a strong North-South divide which reflects deep differences in culture and development.


However, a view on how many children had received any immunisation suggested that the system was capable of delivering. More interestingly, it revealed pockets of very high performance in some of the Northern states, which in turn yielded insights about how to improve coverage overall.


In Punjab, Pakistan, routine immunization coverage in 2011 varied significantly between the province’s 36 districts. While Punjab’s average routine immunization coverage was 47%, district performance varied between 9% and 80%.


While some inter-district variation was due to economic and geographic factors, the difference between neighboring districts could not be explained only by these extrinsic factors. In fact, it turns out that the main driver of variation between neighboring districts was the effectiveness of district management of the vaccination program.

Recognizing this trend meant that successful management approaches could be identified from high performing districts and spread throughout the system. In the years following, Punjab achieved some of the fastest improvements in immunization coverage ever recorded.

About the authors

Fenton Whelan founded Acasus. He has more than a decade of experience in public health and education development.

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