It’s a bit of a modern management cliché to say “Don’t bring problems! Bring me solutions!”
I think what that means is “Don’t just complain! Think about improving things!”
It’s good to think about improvement, but sometimes (if not often!) that improvement process starts by identifying problems.
In a “Kaizen” process in a team, I encourage people to bring problems forward even if they do NOT have a solution or “countermeasure” in mind. When somebody points out a problem, that can prompt discussion or brainstorming (with the manager and colleagues) about what solutions could be tested.
Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review that delves into this same topic:
The interview with professor Frances X. Frei starts like this:
CBD: I thought that encouraging employees to solve problems was a good thing–?
FF: It is, of course. But sending out this message doesn’t do it. Instead of promoting accountability, it actually encourages employees to turn a blind eye to problems they see but cannot figure out how to fix. When you say “Don’t bring me problems–bring me solutions,” what you’re saying, in effect, is “Of all the problems you find, I only want to know about the ones you can solve.”
I’d add that even when people have solutions in mind, we have to be careful that we’re not jumping to solutions. Making sure we define (and understand) the problem first is a very helpful and necessary first step.
Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is. This is especially true when the problems have any degree of complexity. If you’re giving people permission to tell you about just those problems they can solve, you’re missing out on many opportunities for improvement. You’re leaving performance boosters on the table simply because the problem and the solution aren’t collocated.
Frei also says, “that managers use [the phrase] to quiet chronic complainers.” Does this make it “dangerous” for people to speak up and point out problems? We need to make it safe for people to talk about problems to create an environment where improvement can happen. She, not surprisingly, points to Toyota as an example of a company that has a healthy improvement culture.
Read the rest of the interview. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts or any reflections on this expression and what it means to your team and your organization.