The failure of “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 7, 2012 · 15 comments

I head this approach many times, and in many different forms. Managers say “I don’t want people to bring me problems; I want them to bring me solutions.” Or “I don’t want more questions, I want answers.”

I ran across this on the Harvard Business Review Blog in The No Whining Rule for Managers by Ron Ashkenas. I was excited by the title, but disappointed in the advice. I hate whining. I don’t mind venting once in a while, especially when someone calls it out. But whining frustrates me. So I read the article with great anticipation until I got to the advice:

Accountability: First, do not allow your people to present problems without attempting to solve them on their own. If appropriate, they should inform you about what they are doing to avoid any surprises. But the basic idea is that they should do what think necessary to achieve results. There will be times where they may not have the authority or resources to execute the solution — and in those cases they should propose a solution along with their request for help.

Wrong!

Here’s the comment I made on the post, which upon further thought felt I wanted to share here:

I agree with the no whining rule. But I don’t agree that the solution is having to present a solution to every problem. Some problems require help. Some problems require collaboration. Some solutions are better with some coaching. Certain, most people are better with some coaching. Forcing people to essentially do all problem solving in a vacuum is a mistake.

I think surfacing a problem, in most organizations, takes courage. To confuse surfacing problems with whining is very wrong-headed. I believe one of the utmost hallmarks of a lean organization is that someone can talk very openly about the problems which they have no idea how to solve yet.

It is the un-lean organization that keeps it’s difficult problems hidden. This, above all else, is the difference between the paths that Kodak and Fujifilm (more on that in a future post). According to Mr. Ashkenas, none of the employees should be saying “but what are we going to do about the fact that film will be going away” unless they’ve already solved the problem themselves.

 
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