You have your favorites. I know you do. Those adages and maxims that you pin to your workspace or jot in your planner for inspiration.

Don’t bring problems, bring solutions.

I always liked this one. The first time I heard it, it struck like lightning. Such clarity and wisdom. Words to live by. But some of those phrases have a dark side. Beware the paradox of unintended consequences.

Bring problems

During a consultation with a group of team leaders, I did more listening than talking. It helped me define symptoms of potential problems, such as a high percentage of burned-out employees. Afterwards, the feedback I received was illuminating. “Why didn’t you bring more solutions?” they asked.

I reminded them that they were extremely successful in building and running their business. It would be premature on my first visit for me to start laying out my solutions to improve their operation. Walking in the door and announcing, “You need heart surgery!” before understanding their vitals could be dangerous to their health. 

Not to mention, some so-called problems are cultural. If you and your partners design a business that demands most of the staff work weekends, and you’re okay with the burnout and heavy employee turnover, then you may not have a problem worth solving. 

In any case, a good question is its own remedy. For example, is burnout a virus that may wipe out the workforce? Or is it seasonal, or cyclical? Some problems may only need a couple aspirin, not an antibiotic. That’s why I often find myself probing with a series of questions when trying to assess a problem.

  • How often does that happen?
  • What feedback do you hear from your staff?
  • How are they performing?
  • How much time does it cost the business?
  • What’s the impact of that problem on key metrics?

My team of leaders were so accomplished I didn’t immediately have solutions for them. But by sharing the symptoms I’d gleaned, the team had the opportunity to decide what was a real problem and determine what needed to be addressed quickly, or not at all. 

Seek to understand

How can we suggest solutions without first seeking to really understand problems? It creates at least a couple troubling dilemmas: 

  • A premature solution may not be addressing a real problem. Therefore, dream-teams run the risk of wasting energy on solving a problem that ultimately doesn’t make an impact. And in turn, they are less energized to solve the next problem that arises.
  • And if we load our plate with too many half thought out solutions to implement, it waters down our ability to prioritize what matters most. It’s easy to chase “easy to implement solutions” and de-prioritize the bigger solutions that are more challenging.

Balancing our strengths

When we see fitness infomercials or magazines, we are impressed by the beautifully proportioned bodies. Yet in a “bring solutions not problems” environment, I’ve noticed an imbalance in many leaders’ physiques. We have put so much value on bringing solutions that our ability to really understand and discuss problems is lacking.

Imagine a body builder whose right-sided muscles are powerful and well defined, whereas the left-sided muscles are skinny and undefined. 

Overbuilt “solutions” muscles are too often underbuilt when understanding and assessing the impact and pervasiveness of a problem. As you can tell, this can cripple the full power of finding the right solutions.

This problem exists in many environments

Need a non-business example? 

When I visited my doctor recently, I had a long-term health concern on my mind. But once she glanced at my historical test results, my doctor assured me there was nothing to worry about.

My family medical history strongly suggests that I am at high risk for this disease. Not today, maybe, but 10 to 15 years down the road. I’ve watched loved ones in my family struggle with a health crisis they may have avoided with more proactive effort. But during my appointment, I’d noticed that my very well-educated physician had not opened my family medical history and did not probe for more details around my concern. She was not curious about the symptoms and the data being brought to the table.

Had she swallowed the “bring solutions not problems” pill and missed the opportunity to really delve into risk factors worth discussing (i.e. could more curiosity in the effort to uncover a problem be helpful)? Is it easier to feel we’ve answered the question than to dig a bit deeper to see what could be lurking?

Although it is not as concise as the original adage, I think: “bring symptoms, seek to understand problems, determine priorities, and then bring solutions” would be a worthwhile revision.

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