Got a problem without a solution?

by | Sep 15, 2017 | 0 comments

During my time in the military, I frequently heard the phrase “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.” On the surface, it made sense. “Take action –  don’t be a complainer!” it warned. And who could argue with encouraging people to take initiative and solve their own problems?

An opposing view…

It wasn’t until my first year of business school that I heard someone challenge this saying. He claimed that this mentality led to corporate cultures where problems could compound unabated. The speaker? None other than Alan Mulally, the CEO responsible for Ford’s turnaround. In his opinion, leaders must have a handle on the truth – what’s working for the company, and what’s not. They should move the big rocks so that employees can do their jobs better. And if leaders discourage people from coming to them with problems, they won’t know about issues until it’s too late. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.

Why this problem is more prevalent than you think…

It’s easy to believe that this kind of situation is rare. But is it? In today’s companies, products and services can be so complex that it’s difficult for any one person to have insight into how it all comes together, let alone determine the root cause of a problem and how to fix it. Add to the mix a healthy dose of competition between employees and failure avoidance – now that’s a recipe for disaster.

How this hurts…

Imagine you’ve just encountered a problem where you work. It’s a tough one. You’ve pondered how to fix it and asked your coworkers a few probing questions, but a solution remains elusive. Bringing up a problem without a solution to your boss is a risk. You worry that it might seem like you’re complaining, or not smart enough to figure it out on your own. Performance reviews are due soon, and you’d rather not stand out this way compared to your coworkers, so you say nothing. You’re stuck – but your company is stuck, too. And your boss? He thinks everything’s fine until the issue finally rears its ugly head.  

How you can change it…

This doesn’t have to happen to your company. You don’t even have to throw out that entire adage – just tweak it to something like “Have a problem? Let’s find a solution.” This changes the tone completely. Instead of making people single points of failure, you open the door to collaborative problem-solving. You can’t just do this with words, though – you have to genuinely create the environment that supports problem-solving. Build companies that give people the flexibility and mandate to find and fix issues within their span of control. Hire and train leaders who make it their focus to move the big rocks. You’ll reduce your chances of being caught off-guard with a major disaster and increase employee buy-in. Mission accomplished!

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