Innovation managers hate the line “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” They insist that before any innovation project can begin, a thorough investigation of the underlying problems must take place; collecting solutions can only start when the problems are identified and well defined. Albert Einstein’s quote is often invoked in this context: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Sabina Nawaz, an executive coach, suggested that organizations should ditch the “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” mentality and instead encourage their employees “to bring up problems in a more productive way.” Three specific approaches were proposed: to make it safe to bring up bad news; to require problem statement instead of complaints; and to find right people to solve the problem.
Although I’m fully subscribed to the “problems first, solutions second” point of view, I nevertheless believe that a more holistic approach is needed to deal with the “problem-solution” dilemma. Instead of looking for more formalized ways of bringing up problems, managers should establish a sustained problem-solving process.
With such a process in place, the question what is more important, a problem or a solution, will simply lose its relevance. Organizations and teams will be constantly looking for problems, both old and emerging, and defining these problems in a specific and actionable way. A solution-generating phase, involving various techniques (brainstorming, co-creation with customers, internal and external crowdsourcing, etc.) will follow, with the best solutions being selected and implemented. A solved problem will be automatically replaced by the one waiting for a solution.
The existence of a sustainable portfolio of problems will extract the best from the employees. Some people are better at spotting trends and sensing troubles, whereas others excel at finding fixes; with a constant flow of problems and solutions, everyone will find his or her sweet spot.
As for managers, they may try this line: “Bring me problems, then solutions, then problems again…”
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