“Bring me solutions, not problems.”
I’ve had managers who said this to me in the past, and I’ve said it myself. It seems, on the face of it, to be a wise suggestion. Ask your people to think about solutions to the problems they encounter and the workplace will not only become more efficient through problems being solved, but people will get better at solving problems.
Well, that’s true, but this might be a more harmful statement than you think. Below are four different outcomes of applying this statement in practice, reflecting on both the problem itself, and the organisational learning potential:
1- Worst case scenario: The problem stays hidden. The team member knows the problem exists but can’t think of a solution. Maybe they don’t think the problem is big enough to bring it to you, or they worry they’ll be reprimanded or embarrassed for not thinking of a solution. There is no organisational learning because the problem was never discussed. As a leader, you’ll possibly never even know this is happening.
2- Sub-optimal result. They come to you with a solution and you approve it. The problem is solved, but in a sub-optimal way. They have come up with a solution, but because they lack the maturity, strategic awareness or broader view, they’ve solved it in a locally-optimised way that might pass other impacts downstream or to somewhere else in the organisation. Maybe the solution has created some extra technical debt, or maybe the cost of solving the problem exceeded the cost of the problem. In this scenario, organisational learning is fractional or non-existent as the only person with awareness of the problem and solution is a single employee.
3- Improved result, but still lacking in impact. The employee comes to you with the problem and a number of potential solutions. Together, you identify the optimal solution from set according to your individual perspectives. The problem is solved, in a more optimal way than the previous situations, but organisational learning has still suffered because only the employee and the leader were involved in solving it.
4- Optimal result. By making it safe to raise concerns, you’ve created an environment where people don’t fear bringing a problem to you without, or with uncertain, solutions. The employee comes to you with the problem and you’re able to bring in multiple people from different domains to be involved in solving it. The most optimal solution can be identified and implemented, and via this process, organisational learning is high – multiple people are now aware of the problem space and the potential solutions, as well as the changes to the environment that this solution has created.
From these four scenarios, it’s clear that the greatest impact on both problem solving and organisational learning is via sharing problems, not just solutions. And this is only enabled through creating an environment of psychological safety, where people can raise concerns, mistakes and ideas without fear.