Dear Dave: I like my manager and my coworkers, and we all seem to get along quite well. The bad news is, we hardly ever think up and apply solutions to our problems. We are experts at identifying what might be going wrong and what needs fixing. But we end almost every meeting patting each other on the back, because we came up with a list of things we need to address. That’s about as far as we get. What can we do to become better problem solvers? – P
Dear P:I know exactly what you mean. I have been part of many teams that thought our work was done if we just identified problems, rather than fully solving them. I believe that identifying problems without solving them is like writing a strategic plan with many goals, but no tactics to fulfill the goals.
Trust me, I have seen many plans that looked like a laundry list of things that are going wrong and even lists of things that are going well. So, there are two problems going on: a lack of finding solutions to threatening problems and an inability to improve on strengths and positive capabilities to bring about change and garner greater successes. We could label these two errors serious current problems and missed opportunities.
Some teams are really good at spotting current and evolving problems. This capability serves teams well, because they know that unsolved errors can turn into huge problems. For example: if customers are ignored and their needs are hardly ever fully addressed, customers will move on and do business with those that treat them well and take care of their needs. It will be next to impossible to win these customers back – they have gone where they will receive the best care.
Good managers ask tough questions and point out possible risks. And good managers nurture team cultures that thrive on error detection. However, finding problems and not solving them impedes productivity, dampens morale, and costs companies loads of money. And – to makes things worse – if opportunities are missed, the competitive nature of a company will be diminished, and the opportunities may never appear again.
Companies and customers thrive best when each-others’ backs are covered. When their best interests are protected, better relationships are formed, and greater learning opportunities will be shared. Companies thrive on [accurate] information, and it takes essential and shared appraisals of the business environment, the competitive landscape, and emerging problems to make business relationships grow. But to really make companies successful, there must be more than problem finding – there must be problem eradication.
Plans are more than a list of problems
When I was in management at one company, we held 2-day manager meetings at least once a month. Nobody left the meeting room at the end of the second day until all identified problems had a solution or at least a plan for further research. We [managers] were expected to come with problems and proposals related to either the company or our relationships with external stakeholders – mainly customers and suppliers.
The main emphasis was for managers to not only come with the identification of risks, errors, and old and new problems; but to also come with “whole solutions” that would be assessed for relevancy and effectiveness and could feasibly be made operational. I say “whole solutions” must be found, because we wanted to remove any possibility that “band-aid” temporary measures were substituted for fully taking care of a problem.
I have worked in companies and with managers that thought they were doing remarkable work if they only “put out fires” all day long. Putting out fires is crucial; however, the emphasis should be on finding out why these fires emerged in the first place and then proceeding to take care of the root cause(s) of the problems – thereby making sure that the fires never started up again, or, if they did, there would be a system in place to address and fix them.
To be clear, having a team that is only proficient at identifying problems and uncovering potential obstacles is a good start. The problem is problem identification is not problem elimination. And continuous rumination on only problems deepens the inclination of companies to think only in negative terms. Teams strengthen their bonds and enhance their ability to work as functioning units when a total system of problem discovery turns into problem remedy fulfillment.
Talk to your boss about your observations but be careful to not belittle her or his management style and capabilities. You need to be clear about why a focus on solutions will make your team more innovative and resilient – and how this will make your manager appear more competent in her or his leadership.
Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.