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.
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Here's an article from Harvard Business Review that delves into this same topic:
“Don't Bring Me Problems–Bring Me Solutions!”
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.
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The approach I used with my kids back in the day was more like “what’s your plan to do something about it” rather than having them bring a specific solution. I did it to keep them from whining about something without thinking through how to deal with the situation. In some cases, I would help them through the analysis of the problem; in others, they worked out solutions on their own. At work, I’ve used a similar approach and used it as a teaching moment, frequently with the use of a new tool they hadn’t used before.
Great comment from LinkedIn:
From Ladislav Zastresek:
In the offices we have a saying that for every patient that complains, there are 10 more that say nothing and just transfer to another practice. When you discourage or ignore the voicing of problems that may not have an obvious solution, those problems may indeed go away… but not in the way you want them to.
I like this Mark and I agree – the phrase “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” has become yet another vacuous management ejaculation that sounds impressive but is completely stupid.
I don’t understand why we treat problem identification as a negative activity. In fact, it is one of the most useful skills in business. Illustrating a situation for the benefit of others is exactly how an environment in which solutions can be found is created.
A better phrase might be “I see what you mean. What ideas do you have for how this situation can be resolved?” Usually, the problem-bringer WILL have some idea of what the solution might be. A good manager would validate and appreciate their identification of the problem and then encourage them to contribute their ideas as to the solution.
Hope a few of these buzz-phrase toting management types read your blog, Mark!
Great comment, John. I think the negativity about problems maybe comes from people being BLAMED for those problems. Therefore, problems are a bad thing because I suffer when I’m blamed. So, it’s better to ignore the problems or actively cover them up.
But, when problems are just fact — a realistic understanding of what reality is — we can work together without blame to actually solve the problem. Then, things get better, nobody loses, problems are a positive thing.
“We need to hold people accountable” is another example of a vacuous phrase that sounds good — but it’s blaming and it’s harmful.
[…] Bringing Me Problems is OK, We’ll Find Solutions Together […]
The quote is properly directed at professionals not lower level workers, and of course you can ask for help if needed.
Many people, sadly, aren’t in workplaces where they feel safe asking for help.
I completely agree, Mark. Platitudes like, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions” may look great on a mug. But, they do nothing to encourage employee engagement or creativity.
On the contrary, they often have the effect of scaring employees to death. Employees are afraid that if they bring up a problem without a solution they will be blamed for causing it. It’s a no-win situation for them. If they bring up a problem without a solution, they may get punished. If they don’t bring up a problem or delay bringing up a problem and the problem escalates, they may get punished. The only safe course of action is to never bring up a problem you can’t solve and to cover your tracks lest anyone find out you have identified a problem and are keeping quiet about it.
It reminds me of a former coworker who was going through the motions, but she was really hiding work in her desk. I’m not sure why she behaved that way. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the reason had to do with getting confused at some point or making a mistake and being afraid to ask for help or admit fault.
Scared employees go into “fight-flight” mode where all they can do is survive. Fear shuts down executive reasoning, which is needed for creativity and innovation. Ironically, scaring employees with ultimatums about solutions may prevent them from exercising the very type of critical thinking that is necessary to come up with the solutions you are demanding.
Psst. Scaring employees never ends well. Pass it on.
Thanks for the comment, Cindy.
People can get away with that for a while… but not too long…