Problems get a bad rap in business. They’re so negative! So much so that in some organizations there are no problems, only euphemistic “opportunities.” Another common refrain employees sometimes hear from their managers is, “don’t bring me a problem without also bringing me a solution.”

The intention behind these sentiments is understandable. Problems are easy to call out without taking responsibility for doing something about them.  But our organizational bias for “solutions thinking” is problematic too.

  • We often send solutions too soon. Personally I listen to problems like a contestant on Jeopardy!, ready to buzz in with “the answer” before the person describing the problem has finished speaking. I know better and it still happens. When I tune out this way, I fail to understand the context and nuance of the problem the person is experiencing. And if I offer my solution based on the part of the problem I did hear – the “presenting problem” – rarely does my solution address anything other than the symptoms.
  • Our solutions are our solutions. The solutions I offer have (usually) worked for me; naturally I’m eager to be of help to others. Ironically, my “help” may actually be disempowering. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has written that in a desire to add value, leaders “may have improved an idea by 5%, [but] they’ve reduced the employee’s commitment to executing it by 30%, because they’ve taken away that person’s ownership” of the solution. Oops.
  • Solutions can obscure underlying needs. In our conflict management seminars we use a real-life example of a couple planning a wedding. One wanted a large wedding, the other a small wedding. They argued back and forth for months, each advocating for their respective solution. Finally they realized their solutions were ways of getting their deeper needs met: one wanted to celebrate their joy with all their loved ones, the other sought intimacy for such a sacred occasion. Once they focused on needs, they found a solution that worked for both: a small wedding with a big reception.

So what’s the solution to the problem of solutions? Glad you asked – I’ve got some solutions for that!

  • Don’t hit your solution buzzer too soon. Resist the urge to offer solutions until you’ve understood the other person’s problem and/or needs – from their frame of reference. That requires more listening than we’re generally used to doing. But listening well can save time and frustration when it comes to solving problems. As John Dewey once observed, “a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved.”
  • Ask, “what have you thought of or done so far?” Have you ever offered advice only to hear, “Tried that. It didn’t work.”? This will help avoid that awkward moment. Learning what the other person has done can help you assess the other person’s skill in assessing the problem (think Situational Leadership) and tailor your suggestions to be more useful.
  • Ask if your input is wanted. If you’re the person’s manager, the answer will most likely be yes, but asking rather than assuming will help you sidestep the problem of adding unhelpful “value” which Marshall Goldsmith described above.
  • After offering advice, ask the other person what they think of it. This not only keeps the conversation two-way, it transfers accountability. If the other person doesn’t like the advice, the solution is still yours. If they do like it and can see themselves implementing it, it becomes theirs.

What do you think? (See what I did there?) If you have thoughts or reactions about my advice about advice, please add your thoughts below. I’d love to hear them.

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