Bring your problems – Solutions Preferred But Not Required

Leadership

Bring your problems – Solutions Preferred But Not Required

One of the mantras I learned to live by early on in the Army was, “Don’t bring a problem unless you have a solution.”  I not only learned to operate under these conditions but perpetuated them as well by encouraging those who were junior to me to live up to this standard.

The Good…

Throughout my career (and admittedly I’ve use this as a parent as well) I understood the value to be twofold.  First, it eliminates complaining and fixed, victim mindset associated with a culture where people are not responsible for solving their own problems.  Second, it develops a culture where individuals take accountability for solving problems and learn to clearly communicate their ideal outcome to those who are senior to them.

The bad…

On the surface it would seem that this breeds innovative thinkers and promotes a culture of solving problems at the lowest level.  Instead, what often happens is a feeling of intimidation or anxiety that leads to subordinates not raising important issues for the lack of what they feel is a worthwhile solution.  Also, under some leadership teams, subordinates learn to fear their superiors response to what they declare is a bad idea.  In this article by Harvard Business Review, the author suggests three things to leverage the spirit of this rule while mitigating some the undesirable consequences of it:

  1. Make it safe. Learn to respond with Active Constructive Responding behaviors and encourage people to continue to come to you with their problems.
  2. Require a problem statement.  This requires a bit of mentorship and development for subordinates but will eliminated (or at least reduce) complaining.  This reduces us vs. them thinking and other patterns typically associated with a fixed mindset and reorients the person to develop a growth mindset – often resulting in a self-revealing solution.  Learn more about problem statements.
  3. Find the right person to resolve the issue.  This is an opportunity to break out The Decision Tree.  Sometimes, a person will bring a problem that after clearly defining it, and discussing possible courses of action, they realize they could have solved it without even mentioning it – a leaf level decision.  Other times, we’ll need to assemble a team around a problem with subject matter experts and possibly a project manager.  And even still, there will be times where the senior member of the organization needs to close the door, and do some heavy thinking and soul searching to determine the best course of action.  At the end of the day the most important thing is to get the problem well defined and into the most competent hands possible.

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”  – Charles Kettering.

The trick is for the person hearing the problem to revert back to #1 above – make it safe.  In order to develop a culture where people solve problems at the lowest level and address issues in a proactive (non-complaining manner) it’s essential that leaders promote a culture where it’s OK to bring a clearly stated problem without a solution.  However, to create a truly effective team where problems are solved at the lowest level and people grow and develop we need to  encourage a culture where people learn to make decisions and solve the problems they have the ability to solve.