Bring me problems, not solutions; the art of real empowerment


Recently, one of our very lovely clients was bemoaning his misfortune having called a meeting with his leadership team to discuss an important issue that would have wide-ranging impact across the business. Having taken the time to set the agenda and shape his ideas for working through the problem, he was frustrated by their seemingly incessant questioning and need to unpick the options he’d so carefully presented. Especially as his intention was indeed to be inclusive by allowing them choice as to which of his solutions they chose to work on and drive.

Our typically Maier response (supportive, but with a healthy dose of challenge) was, ‘Well, of course that’s what happened. You called a meeting to get their input, but actually presented them with an almost completed resolution. They wanted to understand the problem and give their own take on how to solve the issue, to help develop some choices on ways forward. They wanted to be part of finding the answer.’

Been there, bought the t-shirt

‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ We’ve all heard it. Most of us have probably said it. Surely, this is the very epitome of an empowered culture? Or is it? Encouraging people to solve problems is a good thing, no argument there, but perhaps what people sometimes hear is, ‘I only want to know about the problems you already have an answer to.’ So, what then happens to issues that don’t have instantly recognisable solutions or are more complex in nature? Where do they go? Who in the organisation is empowered enough to take these on?

A problem shared…

One reason for asking for ‘solutions rather than problems’ is to help filter out the chronic complainers, those team and staff members for whom the glass is perpetually half-empty. And while this ‘clever’ performance management tactic might work on some levels, the underlying damage it causes can be twofold. Firstly, you’re not stopping anyone from voicing their negativity, they’re just not talking to you about it anymore. And secondly, you can’t solve problems you don’t know about and if you’re not solving problems, our guess is you’re not improving performance either.

‘Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is’

Wise words from the guys and gals at HBR (Harvard Business Review) and being the ‘queens of collaboration’ that we are – we’re totally sold on this idea. But, going back to our opening anecdote, you can see how the management mantra of ‘bringing solutions not problems’ to the table might limit creative problem solving and maybe even overlook opportunities to develop and progress.

Finding a solution is one thing, implementing it is quite another. And for that you need people to have bought into it, to be prepared to drive the changes necessary and, more often than not, share some of the pain this entails. It’s about empowering the many, not the few and that means getting people on board early enough to make the most of the collective expertise you have at hand.

We can all do more when it comes to celebrating the people who are brave enough to shine a light on problems – with or without a solution attached. A united focus on performance improvement is more empowering than individually packaged solutions any day.