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.

Brain teasers

As far as British summers go it might have been a slow start, but things have definitely started to heat up and at Maier we’re putting every effort into extending the summer vibes. While we’re hanging onto the sunglasses for as long as possible we are also keenly focusing on the next few busy months as the ‘holiday season’ comes to an end and the mad dash to Christmas begins.

Having wound down, it’s definitely now time to wind back up so what can we do to keep energy levels high and our brains performing at full potential? Perhaps most importantly, how can you as leaders help your teams take on the post summer slump challenge?

 “Thanks to research on human behaviour, we know what it takes for the average person’s brain to perform at its best, cognitively and emotionally…These new insights suggest that simple tweaks in leaders’ communication and behaviour can potentially create a much more productive atmosphere for any team”

Caroline Webb, McKinsey Quarterly Feb 2016McKinsey article

Here comes the science bit…

The more we understand how the brain functions the more we’re able to positively shift behaviours in ourselves and our teams…. for example:

Avoiding ‘information overload’ and ‘leaving by example

Ever heard of automatic and deliberate brain systems? In a nutshell, ‘the automatic system is great at executing plans but not so good at making them. The deliberate system is inefficient for carrying out plans but excels at making them’ (Social Psychology and Human Nature, Roy F. Beumeister). When we’re overtired or stretched thin the brain’s automatic system can begin to execute plans without thinking and that’s where mistakes can happen. Sound familiar?


“If leaders can encourage people to go offline when doing their most important work, as well as taking more frequent breaks, they’ll see an uptick in productivity, innovation, and morale” (McKinsey)

Whilst it may sound too good to be true research says otherwise and, as leaders, a few small changes to your own daily routine could make all the difference. For example, try role modelling behaviours or ‘leaving by example’ – show that you’re switching off, make a point of leaving your desk, set a timer to ensure you take time out.

“It’s become a collective thing in the office now. And everyone’s decided that breaks are a legitimate use of time because we get so much more done afterward.” (McKinsey)

Even the smallest of insights into how our brains work can potentially have a huge impact on productivity, so perhaps think about how you can apply some of the science to the day-to-day and you never know, it might just pay off.

Tapping into ‘discovery mode’

We’ve all had times where a business problem can knock you off course or leave you feeling flat and demotivated. When thinking for example about delivering bad news  it’s key to reflect on not just the what but the how – it’s genuinely what can make all the difference. Yet we still get so caught up in the content of the message that we neglect the delivery don’t we?

InBusiness sums it up nicely: ‘The more we understand what is happening in the brain, the more we can make adjustments that have real productivity gains’.

Ultimately by creating a positive frame for difficult tasks or discussions you’re more likely to get to a solution quickly. In a recent interview, Caroline Webb, author of ‘How to have a good day’ discusses the impact that ‘discovery mode’ can have with regards to decision making:

‘…if you’re dealing with a really tough discussion topic, you don’t have to be soft about it, but you can get people to think more clearly and, indeed, yourself more clearly if you first ask, “What’s our ideal outcome here? And what’s our first step towards that?”

‘Competence and purpose are inherently rewarding for the brain. If you can get the brain to focus more on the rewards than the threats in the situation, then you’ll get to clearer thinking’.

Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day

Simply put, listing the positives and focussing on the ideal outcome can make all the difference between a team in defence mode vs. discovery mode. It’s about looking at the other side of the same coin.

The Kaleidoscope Effect

When working with top teams from different backgrounds and sectors, often at different stages in their corporate life-cycles, you might naturally expect to be focusing on a number of very different issues, specific and unique to each team. But, as we’ve learned over the years, this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, while recently delivering a series of strategic Executive team events (‘custom-made’ for each client of course – that is the Maier way after all) we began to notice an emerging pattern. It seems that when it comes to the C-suite, problems are often not made for sharing. With HOT (honesty, openness and trust) being one of our markers, what stood out during the sessions was that even the most gifted and enlightened of Execs still feel the need to hive off functional issues to be dealt with later behind the proverbial ‘closed doors’, often with minimal input from colleagues.

What may seem mundane and trivial on the surface can prove to be something of a chronic distraction –  more often than not these departmental conundrums have a much wider impact than we realise. With meeting agendas already bursting at the seams and top teams having to work at hyper-speed to stay ahead of complex change curves, it’s easy to understand why Exec members don’t always bring problems to the board table. And let’s not forget, for most of us ‘going public’ with problems, even when not of our making but certainly within our remit, often takes guts and a good dash of bravery.

Team-powered problem solving

The big message here is ‘you don’t have to do it all on your own’, in fact, it’s better if you don’t!

“Tricky problems must be shaped before they can be solved. To start that process, and stimulate novel thinking, leaders should look through multiple lenses.”

Mckinsey and Company 2013

The value of ‘team-powered problem solving’ is in the diversity of approaches it brings to unravelling difficult issues. The ‘what-ifs’ become ‘so-whats’ because the combined efforts of a team inevitably generate more options and ideas than any single individual, no matter how talented or experienced, ever could. A great example of this was during a recent event we facilitated where an Exec member happened to share a problem she’d been having with a particular team of hers as part of a HOT development session. The collective input and ideas from everyone else in the Exec team proved invaluable, not only in terms of offering varying perspectives but also in confirming their support. By the end of the session a plan of action had been drawn up and wheels already set in motion.

Then there’s the collective learning and shared support to add into the equation – solutions might be simple but that doesn’t always make them easy to implement and knowing you have a team behind you, all invested in your success, makes any challenge more manageable.

This approach isn’t just for the ‘here and now’ – similar tactics  can be used when looking ahead, in avoiding anticipated problems and identifying potential ‘bumps in the road’. To find out more, contact us.

Inspiring spaces 

On the subject of problem solving, a change of scene can be hugely beneficial in providing the right environment for open and honest conversation, along with increasing productivity levels and simply getting the creative juices flowing.

Over the past 20 years we’ve had the privilege of working in some truly amazing spaces, but our standout venue so far this Summer has to be the Turner Contemporary in Margate.  It provided the perfect setting for this Executive group to reflect, to take time out in thinking that bit more creatively around what’s front of mind and enjoy exploring some new possibilities.