Recently, I spoke with a small business owner who talked about the spirited, sometimes fiery debates he would have with his two co-founders about the various challenges they faced in their business. He shared that early in the company's history, these debates would turn into arguments and personal conflict, but today they are much more likely to end in some level of agreement. The biggest change? The three founders made a deal to never complain without also presenting a suggestion on how to fix the problem.
Their "deal" reminded me of a critical lesson I learned all the way back in high school, as the occasional writer of opinion articles for my school newspaper. My journalism teacher constantly reminded the opinion writers to never present a problem without posing a solution. It makes the difference between a self-indulgent whine-fest versus presenting actionable content that orients people toward change.
Transferred into a business setting, this mindset creates a solution-focused, action-oriented team that works together to keep things moving forward. Here are a few suggestions to help instill this pattern of thinking in your team.
It Starts with Hiring
It's far more efficient to hire a problem solver than to create one. Problem solvers are the intrapreneurs of an organization, the people who see challenges as opportunities.
Rather than asking an interviewee to tell you about a time when they demonstrated problem-solving skills, present them with a problem related to the role they are interviewing for to solve during the interview. The best problem solvers show a unique blend of analytical thinking complemented by creative solution exploration.
Even if you hire first-class problem solvers, a commitment to professional development efforts to support and enhance these skills is critical to ensure the entire organization progresses together.
Courses focused on collaboration, adaptability, creative thinking, and analysis will support a solution-oriented workforce. Instruction to develop coaching skills is also important so that managers learn to guide their reports through the steps of solving a problem, versus jumping in immediately with a solution of their own.
Like all priorities in your company's culture, integrating a focus on problem solving into your day-to-day business will create alignment and accountability.
On an individual basis, I'm a big believer in using one-to-ones as the primary way to listen, coach, and help a team through their various responsibilities and challenges. Whether weekly or monthly, a one-to-one that includes some focus on your direct report's biggest challenges will invite a dialog and coaching opportunity around problem solving.
On a project-level basis, a simple "post-mortem" meeting at the conclusion of a project provides an opportunity to discuss what worked and what didn't, with ground rules in place to not place blame but rather focus on how to approach the same scenario differently next time to arrive at a better result.
Stepping back to a wider view, annual initiatives to tackle frustrating or difficult challenges have been incredibly impactful for us at Greenleaf Book Group. Our monthly leadership check-ins on these initiatives keep them from falling to the back burner and provide an opportunity to recruit the smarts of other veteran employees who can draw on experience with similar challenges.
Discovering a solution for a problem can feel exhilarating, but the proverbial rubber meets the road when it comes to taking action on that change. Ideas are easy; implementing is where things often fall apart. The big picture accountability exercises mentioned above are helpful to keep implementation top of mind, but you'll also need to allocate resources (both time and money) to support these changes. If resources are a limiting factor, be sure to communicate boundaries on the front end to avoid disappointment and a complete shut down of innovative thinking.
For example, if your company has known issues with internal lapses in communication, your problem solvers should be given enough budget context to know whether they should focus on improving internal procedures or exploring an investment in a new CRM tool.
As you work to create a team of solution-oriented people, remember that the buck stops with you. Set an example and don't be too quick to jump in with your own solution when you see a problem surface. Give your team the tools and information they need to move these challenges forward and proudly watch them do the heavy lifting for you.