Some managers love to say “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions”
And of course, it is said in name of being productive and constructive but it depends ultimately on the spirit of the statement and how it is being understood.
To me, the main issue around this statement is the emphasis on solutions as though it is an independent notion from the problem. There’s this sense that problems are negatives while solutions are positive. That is a reflection of poor leadership. To a large extent, problems are opportunities to be exploited and the solutions are channels or avenues to exploit the opportunity. Solutions cannot possibly be divorced from the problems they solve and hence, there is a false dichotomy being implied in the statement.
In 2017, a Harvard Business Review article mentioned that this idea of “requiring solutions can breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises. Many managers demand solutions to avoid a culture of complaining.” But complaining is a form of communication, just a poor form of that. The article recommended three steps to improve the communication:
1. Make it safe. Modify your behavior so that people aren’t afraid to bring you bad news.
2. Require problem statements instead of complaints. Train your team in how to communicate problems by providing facts, examining underlying causes, and describing everyone’s role in the issue.
3. Find the right person or people to solve the issue. Coach the employee on how to tackle the challenge, or assign the problem to others who can help.
What I love about this reframe is how it can encourage the team to be more curious about a problem and not feel like they have hit the wall. Make it safe for people to bring up problems and ask questions about the problem at hand to help encourage the team to interrogate problems carefully. This may often bring up solutions.
Getting people to think clearly about problems also help. And getting them to develop problem statements can cause solutions to surface naturally. By jumping straight into solutioning, one can miss the true underlying problem and only try to deal with a symptom instead.
Finally, as a manager, you have to acknowledge the fact that you have to be part of the solution to challenges that are brought up to you. You might not be able to come up with it but you’d be able to enable it by helping to find the right person, or pointing your staff in the right direction.