Bring Me Solutions, Not Problems (I know you think you know this, but …)

I recently wrote a post on how to ask for help or favors from people.  This is a related post that will not only help you get the results you want more effectively but will also help earn the respect of your senior people (whether management or your board).

I know you think you know this already.  Everybody says that.  It surprising how few people actually follow through this this advice.  So here goes …

As much as I like to occasionally make fun of having been a consultant early in my career (although I built computer systems rather than just PowerPoint slides), I realize upon reflection that I did learn a lot of great management practices from working in such a large and well-structured organization as Accenture.

One of the most practical pieces of early career advice I got was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”  The message was clear.  I hired you because you’re smart.  As your senior manager I’m happy to help you any time you need.  But I have my own shit to deal with – believe me.  You think you have problems?  Imagine having 10 people reporting to you all bringing you problems as well as our client and my senior partners.  I’m up to my eyeballs in problems.  I don’t have the time or inclination to figure out your problems for you.

So what does it mean to bring solutions?  Well Brad Feld, who recently visited us in LA, quoted Mark Pincus in saying, “be the CEO of your own job.”  So to bring solutions you need to be the CEO of your own job.  Diagnose what is wrong before running it up the flag pole.  Your layout should be concise, have actions (exactly what you think needs to happen) and have options.

When you bring the solution / problem to others it should be couched like this:

  • Problem (2-3 sentences: “we have a morale problem in the company. if we don’t solve it I fear we might lose some of our best tech talent as 5 of our 8 developers are currently underpaid and have been with us for 2+ years. this will set us back dramatically”)
  • Diagnosis of why you believe the problem exists (“we have been working long hours for 6 months and in the company for 3 years. our staff are not yet seeing customer success or they’d be feeling better. we are paying less than market. with the pickup in tech hiring we’re seeing a lot of our developers getting calls from other startups.”
  • Suggest Solution of what you think the right answer is including time, cost to implement and other asks (such as executive level support for change) (“we don’t have the cash reserves to increase pay.  i’d like to allocate an additional 25% of options to each developer above their initial allocation plus i’d like to reserve $5,000 to have a stress relief weekend event where we could blow off some steam.”)
  • Options (3-4 in total) (Option 2: “we could obviously do nothing and try to get board members in to talk with developers and try to keep their spirits high. that would certainly help also.  but I fear at this point a more substantive offer is necessary.” Option 3: “we could promise pay increases on next fund raising round and not focus on equity. but that fund raising will be seen as uncertain in people’s minds since we haven’t yet scored success with customers.  this idea might work but my gut says it will be seen as ‘gladly paying them tomorrow for a hamburger today‘).

Here’s why:

  • you do need to state what the problem is up front (but make it clear that you have ideas on how to solve it) before asking people to approve something.  If you can’t convince somebody more senior that it’s a real problem then they’re obviously not going to be bought into the solution.  Try to be specific on the problem.  Don’t make it too wide.  It needs to be actionable.  Having quantification in the problem definition always helps.
  • you need to tell somebody your preferred answer.  don’t make them guess. everybody hates when you are presenting options and we know that you really have a bias toward an answer but you make us tease it out of you.  the ceo of his/her own job would say “this is what I think should happen. are you ok with my proceeding?”
  • have real, not fake, back-up options.  otherwise you’re not really asking for our assistance, you’re just asking for a “yes” to our only solution.  that’s no fun either.

You always have a boss, whether you’re a mid-level manager, SVP or CEO.  Heck, even VC’s have bosses (our investors).  The higher up the ladder you are the less time you tend to have and the more shit you’re probably dealing with.  Senior people love when team members help define problems that need fixing.  But they love, love, love when team members bring them solutions.  In fact, senior managers surround themselves with solutions people so you might just find your career accelerating.

  • http://tonyadam.com Tony Adam

    Thankfully I learned this early, mostly for political battles…but…having the data and facts lined up, along with a couple proposed solutions to the problem will make everyone's life easier, as you pointed out.

  • http://www.vikramadhiman.com/ Vikrama Dhiman

    Mark:

    I understand what you are saying and appreciate it because I have been a manager and have reported to people too. I think the reason that I as a manager am neck deep in work/ problems, is probably the least of the reasons for not bringing other problems especially if people who report to me think that I should be aware of them. This also has some unintended consequences as eloquently presented in this blog post: http://www.galorath.com/wp/the-danger-of-%E2%80

    The answer like everything is Autonomy. If I can create an environment where people who report to me feel they need for solving business issues, they will. Presenting solutions is one step but there is a lot more I need to do. I will start by asking myself as a manager “Why do people come with problems and not solutions”.

    Thanks

    Vikrama Dhiman

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ davidu

    Worth pointing out that you definitely want rank and file folks to bring you problems even if they don't have a solution because otherwise you're liable to not hear about what's really wrong in the company…

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    The closer I look at startups, the more I can see this “bring me solutions” mantra is true for customer acquisition. Customers are the ultimate boss. While they don't dictate design decisions precisely, any business' bottom line is influenced by customer action. In fact the lower the barrier between developers and customers, the better off the startup. Let your lead designers and backend engineers see real time analytics, as well as discuss customer feedback directly.

    Ideally as a startup founder, you're creating a framework to enable iterative product development and optimization to satisfy the needs of a changing customer base. The better your scaffolding, the more beautiful the cathedral.

  • http://fleckman.tumblr.com Peter Fleckenstein

    Mark, thank you for your invaluable post. I was VP of Technology for a real-estate development & construction company that had purchased a hotel in Niagara Falls. I flew up to our new purchase and held a meeting to find out what the current technology issues (problems) were. The heads of each department were there as well as the General Manager.

    We went around the table and each department head listed their problems. The GM then went on and explained the problems that caused the problems each department. I said nothing as we went around the table. Then I made this statement:

    “I have the solution to all your problems. Not one of you have even slightly hinted as to a solution for your problems. So to solve that problem the solution is to let each one of you go.”

    Dead silence. Here is what I said next:

    “Each one of you, as of this moment are fired. Follow me.”

    We then walked outside the front of the hotel. I then said “Follow me” which they did, back into the conference room. Each department head's notes on their problems was still sitting on the table where they left them. I then said:

    “I just fired the entire management of this hotel. On this table you will find their notes that state what their problems were. I'm hiring all of you to provide solutions to the previous failed management. You have one day to put together a high level view of your individual department technology solutions. See you tomorrow at 8:30 am.”

    The next morning at 8:30 am I walked into the meeting. Every department head and the GM was there and the energy was amazing! Every one of them enthusiastically offered great solutions. Every one of them encouraged each other on how they would work together effectively. It was an amazing transformation.

    Here's the bottom line: We did a complete renovation on the hotel, as in we practically gutted it and redid it. Technology came in under budget and on time. The chain that the hotel was under designated us as a flagship hotel because of the solutions provided.

    Your post was an excellent reminder of the power of providing solutions. Thanks again Mark.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm still often surprised at how many senior exec who “learned” this lesson early in their careers still aren't really that good at it. I think a reminder to all of us is probably in order.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: autonomy – totally agree. I think that's likely what Mark Pincus meant by “be the CEO of your own job”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Disagree. I'd rather train people to think about solutions. If they aren't great at the solution part that's fine. But getting them use to the process is empowering and a chance to teach.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, good point. Works for customers, too. Works for everybody. Including spouses ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Wow, radical approach but sounds like it was really fun and everybody understood it was tongue-in-cheek. Fun story. Thank you.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Hah, agreed. Luckily my wife doesn't read my blog. She says she hears enough of my shtick verbally

  • William Brah

    Mark, I miss your early posts like the one about not investing in people born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great. thanks for the pointer. I'll try to bring some of that back.

  • Liam

    One of the best ways to make yourself invaluable to your boss is to take as much off his or her plate as s/he will allow. That’s a good way to test whether you’re prepared for any interaction: am I increasing my boss’ workload, or shielding my boss from extra work by proposing to deal with this myself? […by delegating, I might add, which is a great topic for another post or three, if you haven’t done it already]

    I learned the ‘solutions, not problems’ concept in the Navy where it’s called Completed Staff Work. (Found a standard description of it here: http://govleaders.org/completed_staff_work.htm).

    A couple of corollaries to your ‘solutions, not problems’ policy from the world of Completed Staff Work:

    ➢ Put your boss in a position to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each of your options and move on. Then you’ve made taking action it as easy as it can be. If your boss wants to drill down and get involved, s/he will.
    ➢ Try to think of all the questions your boss will ask about the problem and the solution. Know the answers. That way you only need one meeting instead of several to get to the bottom line.

  • http://david.ulevitch.com/ davidu

    I dunno… my guys recently told me the recycling in our building isn't really being recycled, but that the building staff just throws it all in the garbage. I don't really expect them to come to me with a solution for that, but I'm sure glad they told me.

    It just seems like telling people to only tell me about problems when they are also coming with a solution would result in your getting information more slowly or not at all.

    Obviously I'd prefer them to come with a solution, but I'd rather hear about the problem vs. nothing at all.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    Mark, what do you think about things where the solutions are outside of what a person has time to implement themselves? Consider the following scenario:

    I find a problem and have a great solution. Maybe it would be a couple of months of dedicated full-time to fix it. However, just because I see the solution and options, I am not sure I am the right person to implement them. There might be someone better qualified to fix things quickly. How do you suggest proposing solutions that I don't necessarily expect to implement myself? Or is that just too far out of bounds for most senior managers?

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Especially if your spouse is a former consultant!

    :-)

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Hey Mark, curious as to your thoughts about an 'up or out' model as relates to startups.

    Part of why this approach is so intrinsic to consulting (beyond the fact that they're getting paid to come up with solutions) is because the up-or-out model requires setting up opportunities every day for staff to learn so that can move up. It's part of the social contract. And no one a level up is threatened by someone more junior coming up with great ideas. In fact, if the staff is en fuego it reflects well on you.

    In startups, I think, the company itself is “up or out” (it succeeds or it dies) — not so much the people — so rapid promotion is silly and probably destabilizing. You want good people to stay. Equity is key to this.

    Many companies are not set up to encourage and reward problem solvers. I've seen situations where the boss said something like “the things that you see and know scare me and I can't handle it.”

    At core problem solvers are change agents. Some people can handle change and some people cannot. If they can't, take it as a signal to get outta Dodge.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Wild!

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    The solution and figuring out the right people to do them are two different things.

    You can present solutions that are neutral to who does them. Just word it right.

    The CEO does not personally do all the changes but figures out the who's the right person.

    But the fact you teed up the problem and the solution has just saved them sooo much time. It's a gift that reflects amazingly on you and they see you as a “bigger” person.

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Wow, what an example of throwing a situation into stark relief. Interestingly, I've recently begun thinking more in terms of finding solutions rather than merely defining problems. Obviously, the former is dependent on the latter. I think there is a way to take your approach and turn it into a personal discipline. I like it — although may not have if I had been one of those execs at the table. ;-)

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Mark — Once again, great practical advice that can put to use immediately.

    Problem identification requires analysis, but no one has ever been considered a strong leader or even manager because of his/her ability to define a problem. I wonder if the solutions-orientation is a mark (or at least a component) of leadership.

    Seems like this might be one indicator of the potential for scalability of your startup team.

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Hey — fancy meeting you here! (Kind of heated at our “other haunt” today.)

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    I know Mark P. has gotten some flack for that concept — but it's brilliant.

  • http://fleckman.tumblr.com Peter Fleckenstein

    I did have the insight of the problem as we naturally did our due diligence prior to the acquisition. As for turning this into a personal discipline, I fire myself quite often and literally remove myself physically. I then walk in to my “new place of work”. It is amazingly simple… and effective. ;-)

  • Steve P Oneal

    Mark – Great advice as usual. Gotta keep this response short, though, as now I need to go work on a problem that was just brought to me this morning! :)

  • bmconry

    I see that (teaching solutions) as key to driving a strong culture and therefore company. You teach smart people the basics and turn them loose, guiding where needed. They feel empowered and take more of an ownership in the co. Fundamentally, you're getting to the heart of intrinsic motivation. (Sorry if a bit off topic)

  • http://twitter.com/AndreyMaslak Andrey Maslak

    Agree.