Solving Problems not Just Identifying them

I meet various key persons in business that are really good at spotting potential problems. They are the ones that, when colleagues present new ideas or propose new initiatives, are extremely prompt to put tough questions and point out possible risks. This immediately begs some critical questions. How can any business leader change the culture on their teams from one that’s focused on identifying problems to one that fixes them? What’s the best way to reward employees for thinking critically while also making helpful suggestions?

In all honesty, having team members that are quick to identify problems and voice potential obstacles, is not necessarily a bad thing. Issues develop when a team gets entangled in an overriding culture that is overly focused on finding problems instead of solving them – with detrimental effects on productivity and morale.

Any business leaders or manager, should create an environment that allows for both creativity and analytical thinking in order to come up with solutions that are informed by reality. How can that be achieved? Some pointers below:-

  • Identify underlying issues: When faced with a new challenge or idea, many of us react by getting into the details and focusing on obstacles, focusing on the problems and rather than thinking of ways around them. This predisposition gets compounded when we work with other people that often exacerbates the inclination to think in negative terms. This social aspect is more or less evident depending on the personalities that compose your team. Business leaders tend to focus on the “why” and on achieving “the vision”. Persons further down in the hierarchy are more likely to think about the details – because those people are often the ones who need to deal with the nitty-gritty in the execution stage. Understand this and as a business leaders you will be able to change your team’s culture.
  • Reflect on your goal: Every business leaders aspires to have their team be more ‘solutions-focused,’ which is a bit like saying you want your team to be more innovative or more agile,but many business leaders do not how to have their team achieve that. Consider how your team currently responds to new ideas and proposals. What, or who, are the sources of opposition? Where does your team get stuck? Which details cause most issues? Then, think about what you’d like your team to do differently. This will help you define the specific behaviours you seek. Moreover (this is an extremely common mistake), every business leaders needs to make sure that they are devoting time and energy to things on the horizon and the bigger picture. No business leader can spend all of his/her time, on today. You need to keep time and mindshare reserved for tomorrow.
  • Talk to your team: As a business leader you need to talk to your team about your observations and what you’d like to see them do differently. Explain that you want the team to do a better job of “looking for alternate routes,” rather than dwelling on the details of a problem. Ask team members for their take on what stands in the way of that and then listen carefully to how they respond. You might hear, for instance, that team members believe they’re under a lot of time pressure, or perhaps they feel that new ideas aren’t welcome. Maybe the team fixates on problems because people feel overwhelmed, and they might resent you asking them to focus on solutions when they’re already overstretched. If that’s the case, you need to think about how to solve such workload or capacity issue: What tasks can you remove from their plates? Are there new ways of operating which will increase efficiency?
  • Set new norms: Changing a team’s culture requires getting people on board with new ways of thinking and speaking. To accomplish this, a business leaders needs to set new norms that deliberately encourage other ways of working. Norms are powerful because we’re heavily influenced by other people’s behaviour. On effective norm is empowering employees to hold others on the team accountable and speak up if someone is “being too problem-focused.”
  • Role model: Teams need to inspired to think more creatively about solving problems. That is the role of every business leader. As a business leader you need to put your ideas out there, in a direct and straightforward way. Make it clear that discussion will first focus on solutions and not obstacles. Be disarming. Make sure team members know that their ideas don’t need to be perfect. When people are afraid of making a mistake or they’re worried about being evaluated negatively, they get risk averse. The implicit message ought to be: This is a safe place to propose new ideas. As a business leader you need to use your body language, tone and words to invite others into the conversation.
  • Bring in new information : Use external information to trigger creative conversations. For instance, you might forward to all an interesting article about a trend in the industry and ask team members to discuss on how they think this will affect the business. Push them to find answers to questions like: What opportunities does this trend create? If this trend continues, what might we need to pay attention to? What hard choices might we need to make? Including outside voices can also be effective. Inviting a business consultant to attend a team brainstorming session, might spark new strands of conversation.
  • Deal with challenges productively: When you encounter resistance to a new idea, it’s important to listen — but also to make sure that team members’ fault-finding does not monopolise the conversation. If someone discounts a possible new strategy because “the company tried it once decades ago and it didn’t work” you must first validate their feelings and their perspective and then you need to figure out a way to address the resistance in a productive way. You could either create a so-called “parking lot” where you place concerns (writing them on a white board that you’ll return to later in the meeting, for example) or, even better, start a dialog to explore possible solutions. Ask questions like – If we could do it again, what would it look like? How could risks be mitigated? The goal, she says, is to combat “lazy cynicism” by ensuring that there’s any concerns are really “fact-based”.
  • Reward positive behaviours: When you observe team members seeking to solve problems productively, you need to publicly affirm that they’re doing the right thing. New habits don’t form unless they’re rewarded. Acknowledge great ideas and creative thinking. Be genuine.

I truly get tired dealing with business cultures ingrained and stuck in the culture of “100 good reasons as why we should not progress”. These business are certainly heading towards a dead end. Change is constant and only those businesses that have a positive and proactive culture of adapting and implementing innovative solutions stand a chance at surviving.

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