The Solution Trap

"Don't come to me with problems", says the boss, "Come to me with solutions". We've all heard it before. It's supposed to be terrifically empowering - giving people the agency to fix their own roles instead of expecting the boss to do it for them. It's become a kind of mantra for modern management. Empower your people. Ask them for solutions. And it can be empowering. Sometimes.

Quite often though, I find myself talking to a leader in an organisation who says something like "I don't like having problem discussions with my people. They always just whinge at me. They never come to me with solutions. I have empowered them to come up with solutions but they don't, they just whinge all the time". When we look a bit deeper at the reasons for that (usually by asking the leader what they would do about the problem if they had to solve it), it's usually because the problem is actually quite hard to solve. There may not be a clear solution. The symptoms are usually apparent but the causes may not be. The data to understand and solve the problem may not exist. Jumping straight to a solution in this case is not a good idea. I call it the solution trap.

If a problem is well defined and the solution is clear and achievable, giving someone the agency to go and find that solution and implement it to make their work easier is a fantastically empowering thing. But a lot of problems aren't like that. A lot of problems are complex. Their root causes aren't obvious. A solution (if any) isn't always a nice clean, simple change. It might need changes in many other areas that people don't have any control over. In this case, asking people to provide a solution can be actively disempowering. It sounds like you are asking them to do the impossible. Or worse, fobbing them off and ignoring the problem.

Not every problem can be solved by jumping straight to a solution. Many problems require analysis to understand the problem. Many problems require experiments to see which of many possible solutions will be the one that works. By demanding solutions, you can inadvertently cause people to abandon hard problems because they can't come up with a solution that they can implement or, even worse, you encourage band-aid fixes. Treating symptoms, rather than root causes, which often makes the underlying problem even worse.

Asking for solutions is one tool in a leader's Empowerment toolbox. But it's not the only one. If "Come to me with a solution" ends up eliciting uncomfortable silences instead of solutions, it's time to reach deeper into the toolbox.

One very useful tool to pull out is the "Let's understand this problem better" tool. This is where you can help your people analyse the problem, look for root causes, establish measures, analyse data and so on. In some organisations, Toyota being the classic example, this is the ENTIRE job of leadership. All they do is teach people problem solving skills. Don't assume that your people have the problem solving skills they need. Some will. Knowledge workers are often pretty good at this sort of thing within their domain of expertise but not necessarily when it's outside that domain. Fixing a programming problem may be second nature to a developer but fixing a business process problem may not. If they do have the skills, sitting down with them and thinking about the problem is going to be a helpful exercise anyway. It will avoid those process band-aids I mentioned earlier.

Your people may have those problem solving skills already, and may have a good understanding of the information they need, but don't have the influence to access the right data or talk to the right people. That's when you need to reach for the "How can I use my greater influence to help" tool. You aren't solving the problem for them, just using your greater leverage to open doors for them. Get them access to the right people. Influence the owners of business information systems to get the right information. This tool is also useful when there is a solution but it's outside your people's sphere of control. It may impact another group (or the whole organisation). Your greater leverage can help get it implemented.

Your people may have a good grasp of the problem, but there may not be one clear solution. In this case the "Let's run some experiments" tool is very handy. Let your people see that a solution doesn't have to be one simple thing. It can be a range of measures that you can try. You may choose one that gives the best result, you may choose a whole bunch that work together.

Probably the most useful tool at your disposal is the "Let's sit down together and work out a plan" tool. Rather than just asking for a solution, which may not be evident, you sit down with your team and work out a plan of how to get to a solution. They may needs skills, they may need information, they may just need time to stop rushing around and think about it for a while. This tool will help you work out when to use all the other tools in your box. Naturally, this isn't a one off thing. You don't formulate a plan, assign some tasks and job done. No, these things can be hard to solve, there will be dead ends. There will be flashes of insight. There will be changes. This is the tool you will use most of all.

Most problems really require people to stop, think and really get to grips with the issue before coming up with a solution. Don't fall into the solution trap. Don't demand solutions to intractable problems. Help the team stop and think.

Asking for solutions is a useful tool to empower people. Just don't forget that there are other tools in the box you can use as well. Just be careful that you don't pull out the old fashioned "*sigh*...Ok...I'll go away and fix the problem for you" tool that's lying (hopefully unused) at the bottom of the box.