Are There Perils in Asking for Solutions?

One of the most widely used corporate mandates of the past several decades has been “bring me solutions, not problems.”

The business strategy intent, of course, is to encourage problem-solving rather than complain. Complaining solves nothing (not by itself, at least), and can create an atmosphere of general negativity in a business.

But can asking for solutions have perils? Yes.

Employees May Avoid Mentioning Problems

As a recent Harvard Business Review points out, the biggest danger is that employees may not bring problems to their manager’s attention if they are told not to bring problems forward. As a result, problems can be masked until they have reached such significant proportions that they are unignorable.

Crisis and failure are both potential results of a culture that avoids and masks problems.

The reasons employees don’t mention problems vary. They could feel afraid or intimidated to mention them, especially if the culture seems to focus only on solutions.

They could particularly feel intimidated to mention problems if they don’t have a solution. But it may not always be realistic, or fair, to expect a viable solution from an employee who sees a problem.

After all, one employee may see a problem in the supply chain simply because his software allows him to see delays. It doesn’t mean that employee can come up with a supplier-focused solution.

In addition, employees who do come forward with a solution may not see potential negative impacts of their solution, just because of their position on the team. They may be wedded to a solution that isn’t, ultimately, the best one possible. Managers have to field competing claims in getting to a solution rather than relying on specific employees to come up with one that fits.

Encourage problem statements, not solutions.

Steps Toward Good Problem-Solving

Many observers stress that business leadership should stress a culture of problem-solving rather than relying on “bring me solutions.” That way, a flexible team can be harnessed in getting to solutions rather than relying on one individual.

How can you create a problem-solving culture?

First, eliminate fear. Make it clear that anyone who sees a problem will suffer no negative consequences for saying so.

Second, encourage problem statements rather than complaints. Problem statements are neutral and focus on events and business impact rather than people or groups. “The five-step chain to request new material takes 15 days rather than our competitor’s five days, and a result they outsell us” is a problem statement.  “The suits in corporate take a ridiculous amount of time to approve new stuff we need” is a complaint. Focus on measurable impacts on company goals. That way, you can focus on fixing them.

Third, make sure you find the right person to fix the problem. Again, the person who brings a problem forward may not be the right person to necessarily fix a problem. They might not be positioned appropriately to bring a team together to fix it. Many problems are multi-layered and have multiple causes. Solutions may require a team approach.

Asking for solutions can be a laudable effort to eliminate complaints. But it can also have an unwitting propensity to cause problems to be masked or ignored. Managers should cultivate a problem-solving culture rather than a solutions-at-all-costs approach.