Dear Dave: I have a problem concerning the way my team works. My manager and my coworkers provide solutions and answers before they fully understand the problems. In meetings, we throw out one idea after another, before we know what we are facing. When I try to emphasize that we may need to do more research and investigate our challenges more, I am given looks and remarks that could kill. Our quick solutions have often caused even more problems. What do you think we should do? — R

Dear R: I think you need to ask more and better questions about what is really going on with some challenge or matter, before you start presenting potentially unqualified answers. I am all for ideas, but only when problems and opportunities are clearly researched, and you know exactly what you are dealing with.

A fatal error made by many teams, is when they quickly try to find the right solutions to the wrong problems – and time and thought are not given to carefully defining the real problems. You must know exactly what your problems are, how they impact you, and what would happen if you do not take care of things properly. Accordingly, when you hear your coworkers say, “I think,” you should [politely] ask them “what they know for sure.”


Newsletter signup for email alerts

The risk you run is that everyone will see you as that nasty person who always gets in the way of their ability to throw out ideas and thoughts whenever they want. I would run that risk, and it is better that you are seen as someone who asks for more research to be done than to accept and implement inappropriate – and possibly dangerous – ideas that may mess things up further.

Leaders and teams need to revisit an overlooked skill: asking more and better questions. If you think that you have the answers to all important questions – or that you must have the answers, because you don’t want to look weak – I recommend that you take the time to dissect things and learn more about your challenges before you start blurting out answers. It is better that you humble yourself a bit by declaring that you do not have a sure-fire solution in your pocket, all ready to go, and that you need more time to see the realities and complexities of your issues.

Leaders and their teams should ask powerful, thoughtful, and realistic questions. It is only through careful questioning that problems can be taken apart and all of the factors and forces can be seen. If questioning takes more time, I would risk a delay and use the time to let curiosity drive your discussion. We need to remember that our challenge is to find the right solutions, not the fastest ones.

Good questions bring strong strategies

Teams want to trust their leaders and see them as analytical and strategic thinkers. And this means that leaders must show some vulnerability from time to time by admitting that they may not have a ready-made [brilliant] answer for every demand that pops up and they need more time to provide one. Better to be a bit more vulnerable than a whole lot more dangerous.

To take things a step further, when problems seem to be complex and made up of many moving parts, it would be wise of leaders to create investigation teams that can focus their time and attention into uncovering the truth about what is really going on with specific matters. And the investigation teams need to talk to each other to determine how what one team has discovered may be affecting what another team has uncovered. Problems are usually defects in systems that we rely on and this means one part impacts another. Simply, teams must talk to other teams.

Anxiety can run high in volatile times, and focusing your time on strong and appropriate questions – instead of just worrying about how bad things are – can bring teams a sense of purpose and togetherness. Investigation and research are positive practices leading to constructive measures. Worrying is a waste of time and energy. Being solution-driven is much better than being confusion-stricken.

Problem exploration can generate new insights and new ways of thinking. And I believe teams get better and better at solving daunting problems the more they practice proper problem-solving techniques. But teams must play by their established rules and no one should be run over by someone else.

This means that everyone must be given the opportunity to share what they have learned and team leaders should give them that privilege – even if it means asking more boisterous team members to step back a bit and listen to what others have to say. Draw out the shy people – I bet they have a lot to say.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.