“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” can be problematic

02 September, 2019

Solutions-only thinking dampens innovation and creates blind spots, leaving you vulnerable. Genuine problems deserve a leader’s attention.

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of this line at some point during your career. Perhaps you even use it with your own team members. This “no nonsense” approach is popular because it’s supposed to cut down on complaints and empower employees. Unfortunately, while it may lead to less whining, it also has a number of unintended negative consequences. So, this week, my message focuses on why leaders need to be careful to not overdo the “no problems, only solutions” approach. Instead, how can you help your team to raise issues in a more productive way?

Mistakes and concerns are covered up, instead of being addressed. This leaves you blind to potential downsides that can fester and eventually culminate in a crisis

While asking team members to come up with solutions and not just focus on problems pushes for a stronger orientation towards solving issues, we need to be careful. Employees stop bringing significant issues up, preferring to deliver only good news. Mistakes and concerns get covered up, instead of being addressed. This leaves you blind to potential downsides that can fester and eventually culminate in a crisis – for which you are woefully unprepared. A work culture based on fear and silence is also bad for morale. Since team members feel don’t feel heard or supported, ownership and engagement actually decline – the exact opposite of the intended outcome.

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Problem with Saying “Don’t Bring Me Problems, Bring Me Solutions”, Sabina Nawaz explains how this leadership approach also limits the scope of potential solutions:

According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, solution-only thinking creates “a culture of advocacy instead of one of inquiry,” where each person comes into the situation locked into their way of solving the problem and lobbies hard for that particular solution rather than considering multiple perspectives.

As Grant notes, “Most creativity, most innovation happens when somebody points out a problem that’s not yet been solved.” So, when we refuse to hear out any and all problems, we also close the door to new ideas that could help us scale new heights.

It’s important for leaders to understand that communicating legitimate issues is different from “whining”. The former is crucial for long-term success. Not only does it allow problems to be tackled in a timely way so that full-blown crises can be averted, but it also fosters a culture of ongoing improvement. The problem with solutions-only thinking is that valid concerns get ignored along with frivolous complaints. As David Dye puts it in his article, One Awful (but Common) Leadership Practice and What To Do Instead:

The problem with telling people “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is that when they don’t know how to come up with solutions, you’ve essentially just told them, “Don’t bring me a problem.”

Even if your team members do their best, they can’t solve every roadblock on their own. This might be due to a lack of information, resources, critical thinking, training or expertise. Plus, as Nawaz notes:

Not every problem has an easy solution. Tackling the complexity of most significant business issues can take a pool of talented people with diverse points of view.

As leaders, it’s our job to collaborate with our teams in order to facilitate appropriate solutions. In Business @ the Speed of Thought, Bill Gates wrote that one of his most important functions as CEO was to listen to bad news so that he could act on it. Failure to do so means people will eventually stop bringing you bad news – “the beginning of the end” in Gates’ words.

Here are four ways in which you can encourage your team to bring up and address problems more constructively:

1. Welcome concerns, ask questions

To start with, create an environment in which genuine problems can be brought up and discussed freely – be it in formal setting like a review, or in casual conversation over coffee. Don’t react or give your own solution instantly. Instead, pause and listen to the issue fully, then follow up with questions to generate fresh ideas and possible solutions. Dye suggests the following list as a starting point

  • What is your goal?
  • What did you try?
  • What happened?
  • Do you need a specific skill or tool to be able to solve this?
  • What would you do next time?
  • What do you think will happen when you try that?
  • What will you do?

If your team member already has the skills and knowledge to handle the problem, even a quick discussion can help them see things more clearly and switch into problem-solving mode. If the person responds with “I don’t know”, they might be uncertain or unwilling to commit. In such a situation, continue the dialogue and guide them through the thinking process with follow-up questions such as:

  • Have you faced a similar problem in the past? How did you resolve it?
  • Some information seems to be missing – where can you find it?
  • Is there a co-worker who might be a good resource?
  • What next steps might you take?

2. Ask for problem statements instead of complaints

Talk to your team about the best way to raise a concern, differentiating between complaints and problem statements. Complaints generally make sweeping generalisations, often using the words “always” and “never”. They tend to place all the blame on one party, using a “villain vs. victim” scenario. So, for example: “Group A [villain] never submits their numbers on time, which is why we [victim] always miss our weekly deadlines.”

By contrast, problem statements are objective and specific. This involves acknowledging everyone’s part in the problem, so that a genuine solution can be formulated. For example, “In the past two months, we have missed the weekly deadline three times – twice because Group A submitted their numbers an hour after the cut-off time, and once because we weren’t ready with the presentation.” In this statement, the speaker takes accountability for their own actions and shows a willingness to come up with a real solution.

A clear problem statement also makes it easier to identify the main issue: Group A’s numbers are coming in at the last minute. Why is this? Is some of the data only available on the final day? If yes, can the weekly deadline be changed? Or can certain resources help Group A deliver the data sooner? It’s easier to find a solution together once you spot the pattern of the problem.

3. Find the right people and resources

When a team member comes to you with an issue, consider whether they have the skills to resolve it independently. If yes, they may simply need your approval or some help in thinking through the solution. If not, then you need to figure out the best way to support them – be it in the form of resources, training or people. In the above-mentioned article, Nawaz explains that it’s important to assign problems to the right people:

If the size of the problem is beyond their ability to solve, someone else might be better suited for the challenge, or people across departments may need to collaborate. In some cases, the problem might be so important or visible that you need to stay involved. Based on the situation, you can coach the individual to stretch their abilities and tackle the challenge; thank them for raising the issue and assign it to the appropriate people to resolve; or bring together several groups to address it.

4. Develop problem-solving skills

Make time to discuss problem-solving as a team: brainstorm techniques, exchange tips and come up with ways to support each other. You could also train your team members to use a strong problem-solving model, so they can solve issues as independently as possible. In the Forbes article, Don’t Bring Problems To Your Manager — Bring Solutions, Lisa Quast describes the rational decision-making model – an excellent step-by-step approach:

  • Define the problem. Dig deeper into the issue by asking “why?” until you reach the root cause. This will allow you to identify the real problem.
  • Determine solution criteria. What are the parameters in which your solution needs to fit – time frame, budget, resources, etc.?
  • Generate potential solutions. List all possible solutions; there are no bad or unrealistic ideas at this stage. You may want to bring in outside expertise, be it another team member or a co-worker from another department.
  • Analyse and choose. Assess each solution against the criteria you determined. Which solutions are feasible, given the constraints? Choose the one that makes most sense.
  • Make a plan. Now that you have the “what”, think about the “who, where, when and how”. Create a plan for implementing and tracking the success of your solution.
  • Document it, A to Z. Put all the relevant information, from problem definition to implementation, into a one-page document. As Quast explains, this weeds out irrelevancies and faulty thinking: Keeping your document short will force you to carefully think through the situation and get right to the point.

By the end of this process, the problem-solver is ready to present their solution. Remember, your team members won’t be able to solve all roadblocks using this technique. However, strengthening their problem-solving capabilities will ensure that they come to you with only the most complex or unsolvable issues.


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