Talk solutions not problems
Yesterday I realized I’ve made a strategic blunder.
About a year ago I began publicly acknowledging a challenge the organization I lead faces. As weeks and months passed I continued to occasionally acknowledge the challenge.
Why? Because I felt public acknowledgement let everyone know the leadership team and I accepted their frustration and it seemed compassionate.
Warning! Publicly acknowledging problems establishes, elevates, and may magnify them beyond their true significance.
The lesson I learned – Talk solutions not problems.
Publically acknowledging organizational problems or challenges is still important. It indicates awareness and expresses compassion and honesty. However, anytime leaders talk problems they must spend more time explaining solutions than outlining challenges.
Talk problems in small teams that are committed to find solutions.
Talk solutions in large groups and public venues that include outsiders, observers, critics, and the uncommitted.
In my opinion, while discussing organizational challenges, the ratio of problem-talk to solution-talk is about 25% to 75%. Spend no more than 25% of your time talking problems and at least 75% explaining strategies and solutions.
It’s a bit embarrassing to share such an obvious blunder.
I’m interested in your perspective on this thorny issue.
How do you determine when it’s time to publicly discuss an organizational challenge?
When it’s necessary to talk about organizational short-coming, talking too little may seem to minimize the issues, talking too much may magnify them.
How do leaders publicly address organizational challenges without magnifying them?
I understand your self-consciousness about sharing the “blunder.” Still, what a valuable lesson to share! I’ve done similar, affecting not only the mood of a team, but my own outlook as well!
As far as approach, I’d go as far as to say that, in addition to not talking more than 25% problems, that we wrap those problems we DO talk about a vibe of can-do, and as Hank Wasiak champions, “Asset Based Thinking.” One of my favorite quotes from Hank is, “How can we make this our best problem ever?”
I am NOT suggesting that we pretend that challenges aren’t challenges. I AM suggesting that, whenever possible, we get ourselves to a place where we are energized and “can-do” before working with the team.
Hanks Website: http://www.hankwasiak.com
Mark, I think your reference to Hank Wasiak’s quote is refreshing. I think it takes a lot of courage for a leader to ask his/her staff “How can we make this our best problem ever?” AND to see the answers to that question out for the long term. I have referenced one of my favorite Seth Godin blog’s here on LF before: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/07/so-easy-to-talk-about-lunch.html, in which he posits that it’s easy to elicit strong opinions about what to order for lunch but hard to get people to opine about the hard things – opine and resolve! Thanks for words that may help me reframe my day!
Paula, thank you! I appreciate you letting me know that you found some value in what I shared here!
Thanks for sharing the at Godin blog. I read it and agree with you (and Mr. Godin) regarding both the risk and value of sharing opinions for important things when there’s a chance we’re wrong. Would love to see more leaders and cultures encourage in that regard.
BTW, went out to your site and enjoyed reading through some of your work there. 🙂
This is an excellent lesson for all leaders. It makes me wonder how many times I’ve talked about the issues without talking solutions. Hank’s 25% is a good rule of thumb. I have normally addressed issues in the larger forum when there seems to be a ground swell of concern. The leaders should be able to have some solid next steps available under these circumstances. It’s more of a challenge when concerns are raised during the larger meetings, especially if the leader had not yet heard the issue. Thanks for sharing this lesson.
Good morning Dan,
I wish I could say that I had never “been there, done that” but I most certainly can’t. Unfortunately no matter how well one explains a situation the folks only see the tip of the proverbial iceberg and ultimately one ends up creating more questions and fear than expected. “A little knowledge” in this situation is a lot more caustic than a lot. Secondly the lens through which our staff sees the issues is usually very different from the executive team and leadership. I have learned as you correctly surmised to provide a truthful rendition of the problem albeit accompanied by a host of solutions the execcutive team is exploring. I remember not too long ago when a very sensitive issue arose having to go department by department (smaller groups) and having sessions where everyone had ample time to ask and receive answers to their concerns. Another approach I have used when the issue is ultra-sensitive is to meet with the different department chairs and satisfy their queries and once they are comfortable with the “game plan”gong out and having a general staff meeting with all of my “chairs” sitting at the table and also helping to answer questions. I call this obtaining trust and understanding enlisting the “heads of the families.” Lastly like you unless it is an overwhelming event I hold off on any announcements until we have had ample time to formulate multiple possible solutions some readily available but the better ones requiring time and some serious work. This will usually “quench the thirst” of those easily frightened and resonate with those looking for a more robust and permanent solution. This whole scenario reminds me of a favorite quote I read a while back, “If the physician is in the room it is called Planning, and if the physician is not in the room it is called Plotting.” We in leadership do spend plenty of time “plotting” I guess, only to truly make it palatable when we explain our “Plan.” Does everyone really need to know the fine details of the genesis of all Board decisions? I think not. As long as the ship is sailing and there is a “port” in sight the crew will usually be content. Less in this particular case is usually always more in the long run. Regards, Al
That was so insightful – thanks for sharing. I will try to remember: talk solutions, not problems. Great tip, thanks!
Great post Dan !
You’ve just given a great example of leadership too. Admit mistakes and then correct them. So few are able to do this.
Good one, Dan! When I started at P&G in mid 80s, it was quickly drummed into me never to lead into discussion with “We have a problem.” We learned to always lead with a recommendation for action, then provide whatever background was needed for the listener to understand why action was needed, then provide 1-3 points of data-driven rationale. Made for a highly energized environment!
Over the years, I’ve found some managers respond well to “Hey, I’ve got an issue that I’m not sure what to do with. Will you brainstorm with me?”
I like the distinction you make between with small work team and the large public group. But even in the small team, I like a tonality that is less about problem and more about figuring out how to understand the situation, frame the issue, and move towards action.
What we give attention to is what we grow. The “as a man thinketh, so is he” principle is very pervasive. When we foster not only our attention and energies but those of others on something, then more power to the situation. This is why the power of positive thinking is so successful. (As is the power of negative thinking too.)
It’s important to acknowledge the problem and give energy to identifying the structure of it. To deal with something, you have to know and identify the nature at its source. But once that’s been accomplished, the main attention needs to shift to direction away from the problem. Fostering focus on the problem is like creating a stagnant pool that doesn’t flow anywhere, it just sits in the same spot and gets more stagnant. Flow and direction is what it takes to flush it out. Understanding the nature of how this happened and discussing the progress of the flush as it takes place, tweaking things as they come up, are all important. But the focus is always on the future of fresh water.
On the other side of the coin, I know a very competitive leader who is very good at giving attention to solutions, but not the source problems. When someone is in her office with a concern, she goes into immediate action (and documentation) to address it. Whether the true problem has really been identified or not. A “There’s a concern about the trees? No problem, we’ll cut them down,” kind of approach. To the point it now seems almost political in nature and most of the people she leads are very unhappy and moral is low. There’s no doubt in this scenario that attention given to “the problem” comes no where near the 25% threshold you suggest Dan. Everyone avoids approaching her anymore, because who knows what the unintended consequences could be.
In my mind, this is an extreme example. I’m amazed that it’s even a reality. But it does illustrate that there’s an opposite extreme of not really focusing on, talking about, or identifying the problem to achieve a real solution in the first place. There has to be both. I think your thumbnail ratio for 25/75 is a great place to start Dan.
Thanks for a thought provoking post!
Wow, thanks for asking an easy question on a Friday, Dan (ha ha).
How do you determine when it’s time to publicly discuss an organizational challenge?
How do leaders publicly address organizational challenges without magnifying them?
I think there are many variables that impact the answers to these two questions. Not knowing the nature of the conflict you are referring to, the first question for me is whether the organizational challenge is solely internal, or if there are major external factors impacting it. That was the case here at my employer. The contract governing our Third Party Administration changed, and the transition challenges were daunting, resulting in horrible public image problems for our organization and a great deal of internal turmoil as we all tried to deal with it.
The magnification part for our situation is that two years after the fact, even though some parts of the TPA’s functioning have improved significantly, there is still an ingrained distrust of them and, on some of our parts, a tendency to assume they will frequently fail to meet our expectations. In my personal opinion, even though the TPA is a completely separate entity from us, our fates are still intertwined and we have not addressed the root trust issues.
Which gets me to: many of the solutions that are proposed don’t truly address the core problem OR are proposed in a sarcastic way that doesn’t honor our mission of improving children’s health. Even if it’s more than 25%, I think for us the problems need to be brought to the forefront before the solutions can be effective.
As leaders we live many roles. We are expected to be equally:
* oracles, seeing into the future,
* analysts, recognizing both challenges and opportunities
* judges, evaluating the facts and making a decision
* broadcasters, sharing information – good and bad
* guides, leading our team and our organization along a path
* mentors, developing our team or organization to travel the path successfully.
* cheerleaders, keeping morale and momentum high
Sometimes, circumstances draw us into one role more than another. When we spend too much time in any one role, we experience the consequences. As you shared – focusing too much on broadcasting a challenge without offering up opportunities to address the challenge carries the consequence of discouraging or demoralizing the team. Recognizing it and knowing when to shift from one role another is a leadership skill. When as leaders we master it, our team and our organization are aware of the challenges (or opportunities), understand the decisions, have what they need to implement the solution, and believe that they can make it happen.
I agree completely – I especially like the quote Mark Petruzzi referenced “How can this be our best problem ever?”
I created a video a long time ago to teach this concept to my clients.
It’s about finding and focusing on the opportunities in problems. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SQkrTwC96U
The way I see it (I sense you do too) is that the best possibilities for growth and success lie within problems, not in avoiding them.
I use that as a context frame at the start of every problem discussion – once I get agreement on the concept then we can ask the question of how to create problems into opportunities
Thanks for letting me know that you liked Hank’s quote. I became aware of Hank through Twitter, we had some interaction, and I ended up with a signed copy of his book “CHANGE THE WAY YOU SEE EVERYTHING.” Great guy, great approach (Asset-Based Thinking).
Have a great week…
Okay which one of us was supposed to tell Emperor Dan that he wasn’t wearing any clothes??? Ouch!
Your warning, Dan, reminded me when I look in the car’s outside rear view mirror…objects in mirror are closer (magnified more) than you think, especially by others.
Great post and very rich responses!
And to add to the mix, what verb tense is being used? This ‘was’ an issue or this ‘has been’ a long standing issue works. As opposed to ‘this is always what happens’ or even the self-fulfilling prophecy of, ‘this will never change.’ Those time frames color futility in trying to resolve the issue and mute options/brainstorms. In reality, the problem/issue may be past and present but is not the future. That little mindset moves us toward solutions.
I appreciate the distinction between small and large group presentation. In small groups and 1:1s bring up problems, perhaps reframe as opportunities or development potential 😉 and set the expectation that with each ‘opportunity’ the gift bringer will also provide at least 2-3 solutions. Give everyone an opportunity to share their expertise and be heard. The best solutions come from those delivering the service (and those receiving the service). Everyone has a voice, not everyone has a vote. Ultimately, leadership may have to decide if other constraints are involved. The 25/75 keeps the pity pot from boiling too.
The larger group perspective and approach is excellent. What and how information is presented is dependent on the purpose of the meeting. Is it a pre- planning meeting to avoid being blindsided with ‘new’ problems, or is it fact finding, information sharing, general public…again, know your audience and tailor the message.
Loved al2’s staged approaches. They made sense. You could just see Brando and DeNiro doing MBWA. BTW, will someone get Dan a robe!?
Publicly acknowledging problem is a challege. Leader should know which problems should be acknowledged as a challenge and which problems should not be disclosed publicly. All the problems can not be disclosed and disussed publicly. For examples military problems are not disucssed publicly to protect the interest of the country. similarly, organsiation should not discuss the challenges which questions the credibility, capbility and potential of the organisation. The challenge which are global in nature or usually beyond our control should be discused publicy. These problems or challenge may be digested by public easily.
I agree that publicly accepting the problmes create awareness,compassion and honesty. But what is use of awareness when your competitors take undue advantages of our weaknesses. What will be the impact of publicly disclosing decreasing export and market share when you know that next year you are going to maximise it. What will happen when you discuss and disclose with de motivated, complacent and disloyal people, The whole intention behind disclosing and discussing is to promote transparency and prevents failures. But what happens when our means are misutilized or means are inefficient. So, before discussing about problems and solutions, our means, resources and tools should be reliable. trustworthy and honest to protect those problems or solutions from being misutilised or being spread unnecessarily. Leaders should understand the implications of discussing either problems or solutions. Any information, if right, demotivates or discourages the people morale and performance should not be discussed or disclosed publicly. Similarly, informations that tarnish the reputation, image and status of organisation, people and founders should not be discussed publicly.
I agree that we should discuss problems lesser than solutions. It is because problem seems to be negative in nature and solution is positive in nature and have multiple perspective, so leader should talk less negative and more positive so as to create more positive environment. Problems makes you unhappy whereas soulutions make you happy.
Organisation should discuss about solutions and challenges when it fnds faster, better and innovate solutions while your competitors are strill struggling to get that. These moments are the best to gain reputations, image, status and market share. When all the facing the similar challenges, orgnisation should not discuss publicly about the challenge.
The whole issue about discussing and disclosing is strengthen your means. your internal culture should be strong enough to understand the sensitivity of the issues. They should also know what informations, problems or challenges should be discussed inside the organisation and what outside the organisation wall.
Very interesting post: Talk solutions not problems!
My opinion is that we must talk first about the problem only to identify it, to see the Cause of it.
-Then, we think of finding SOLUTIONS talking in large teams, as you said , in order to find more useful approaches (from different points of view-FLEXIBILITY of thinking).
– After that, we must choose the most efficient solution to fix the problem.
-So true, we must invest more in finding right solutions, but only after we determine the true cause.
–Only then we must know that we find the RIGHT solution.
-And another important aspect is HOW we apply solutions- it is a circuit of steps which must be very wisely put into practice.
all the Best!
To add humor to this we have a saying here in Massachusetts, Light dawns on Marblehead!! It has two meanings because there is a Marblehead, MA and the other is that duh moment we all have from time to time.
One must discuss the problem in order to figure out how to get to the solution. But as you say one should not strictly focus on telling everyone the problem all the time.
The 25 / 75 ration sounds about right. In technology we need to get to the root cause analyze the reason and figure out a solution so that it hopefully never happens again. Of course there are certain constraints to this solution, time, cost etc.
Spending the greater time on talking solutions get others energized to help you. The focus has to be best fit solution though.
Thank you Dan for a wonder piece to comment on. Also for your honesty!
Dan, very good subject and as has been stated, some very insightful and useful comments.
It seems to the underlying thought is that yes, the problem needs to be stated, publicly, but once only. Also, when “publicly” is used, is this regarding the corporate public or the actual public outside the company? If its outside the company, I would think that a term other than problem might be used.
Sometime ago someone told me that there are never problems, just situations that need resolutions. When I used that term instead of problem, it seems it did not create the panic and defense mode as strongly as the term ‘problem’. Dans’ statement about ‘opportunities’ in problems’ is also very good. When a problem does arise, maybe it would be good to address it as “we have an opportunity to…”. I would see this as how to address a challenge within the company.
As to when, it would seem prudent to acknowledge the challenge as soon as possible, after of course discussing the resolution of the challenge with the team. This requires internally catching it as soon as possible. Publicly announcing it, after discussion with the team, allows for the resolution to be stated and the same time. I would think that this would minimize the perception of the challenge and emphasize the resolution, hopefully reducing any damage control that is needed.
Just my thoughts.
Oh man, this is rich Dan. I could really identify with your experience. Sometimes people don’t need to be reminded of a problem because they have already been impacted by it on an emotional level. Solutions, well timed, create an atmosphere of hope; a lifeline to hold onto while wrestling with the emotions.
I once put a notice next to my 95 % of the time open ofice door that said OVP. That’s not an official abbrevfiation in Dutch. In English it would translate to : Solution Assembly Point. After word got around what the boss was up to this time, a lot more people came around stating: Hans, I’ve got a solution to share.
BTW; putting SAP on the door in a english speaking environment may not yield the same results 😉 .
Talking problems without solutions creates a culture of inactivity. I applaud your insight and what you learned from the situation Dan.
25%/75% is a great starting point. It may vary depending on the team you lead. Some people (not the majority) need the problem repeated to keep them focused. Others (like driver types) want to focus on getting to the end result (solutions).
Above all — avoid the reverse ratio 75%/25% — you might be seen as a person who just complains and wallows in the status quo.
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