Don’t give me problems, give me solutions

I’ve always hated the “don’t give me problems, give me solutions” approach. For two reasons:

  1. If people were to solve problems themselves, why would they need you?
  2. As a leader, you’re the one carrying “food and water” for them so that they can do their best work. If you can’t do that, how exactly are you adding value?

Of course, there have been times when I have explicitly asked my team to figure out a solution instead of focusing too much on the problems. That’s tough love, but there’s a time and place for it. As a leader, you can’t demand solutions from your team because they would do it themselves if they had enough insights!

Your job isn’t to evaluate their solutions but also to help them get to one. Yapping about “bringing solutions to the table” provides a strong incentive for people to keep their problems to themselves. Nobody likes to be lectured on, remember? But that mindset often comes with another set of challenges — people sit on the issues until it becomes urgent and dire. And guess who will have to put out the fire? You.

One of my friends once said, “the best teams attack problems early and bring them out in the open, way before issues blow up.” It’s a cultural thing. And it needs to be driven from the top. So, it would help if you had to roll up your sleeves and facilitate open conversations where teams lay down their challenges, brainstorm ideas, and figure out a solution that works the best.

I was speaking to one of my close friends about his new job where he’s got a tyrant of a boss who’s fond of saying, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” My instant reaction was, “Oh, he’s that kind of a leader, huh?”

The challenge with such leaders is that they think they’re giving tough love or keeping the negativity in check or are being “coach-like.” Unfortunately, all of that is flawed thinking because expecting people with less insight, context, and experience to bring solutions is arrogant, presumptuous, and often shuts down creativity. Such leaders also forget that their number one responsibility is to solve problems! And that might not mean getting to a solution faster.

It’s far better to invite people to come up with the challenges while encouraging them to brainstorm and explore ideas and viable solutions that might lead to a breakthrough. Or not, in which case, they will brainstorm some more.

Doing so inspires trust in the team’s resourcefulness while setting the expectation that as a team, their responsibility is to put in the time and effort to think qualitatively, not necessarily the solution, outcome or even the result. That’s how the most effective teams and leaders work. Together. Not isolated.

And remember, if you’re a leader — you’re paid to create solutions with your team, not just evaluate your team’s answers. So, the question isn’t “what’s the solution?” but “what can I do the facilitate better thinking?”

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