It appears that the resistance to the time-tested management wisdom “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” has reached a critical mass. Writing back in 2017 for Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz suggested to “retire the saying” and replace this type of mentality with a process of bringing up problems “in a more productive way.”
By now, the fallacy of prioritizing solutions over problems is evident to many. A recent piece warns corporate leaders that the “solutions-only thinking” damages innovation. Worse, it can blind leaders to potential downsides that can eventually culminate in a crisis.
I’m happy to say that innovation managers, myself included, have always hated the “don’t bring me problems” line. We insisted that a thorough investigation of the underlying problems must precede every innovation project; collecting solutions can only start when the problems are spotted, defined, and properly articulated. (Those with a habit of quoting Albert Einstein on every occasion like to mention this one 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.”)
And yet, I’m not ready to swing myself to the “problem-first” extreme of the pendulum. To me, the discussion of what is more important, problems or solutions, reminds of the centuries-old philosophical battle over which came first, the chicken or the egg. I believe that instead of choosing sides—and even inventing better ways of bringing up problems—managers should take a more holistic approach and establish a sustained problem-solving process.
With such a process in place, the question of which is more important, a problem or a solution, is simply irrelevant. Small teams and large organizations alike will be constantly looking for problems, both old and emerging, and defining these problems in a systematic 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 next waiting for a solution.
The existence of a sustainable portfolio of problems-to-be-solved should also extract the best from the firms’ employees. Some people are better at sensing troubles and spotting trends, whereas others excel at finding fixes. With a constant flow of problems and solutions, everyone will find something to get excited and engaged.
But what are we going to do with the “don’t bring me problems” line itself? I’d suggest trying this instead: “Bring me problems, then solutions, then problems again…” Or anyone can propose a shorter version of the same?
Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.
Image credit: Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash