Problems are great

Lightbulb and ideas cloud

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.

I’m not a fan of that much used phrase.

From a leadership perspective, the start is a blocker – Don’t come to me.

Then it goes on to explain that if you are in need of help I am not interested. I only want to know about things once you have worked out how to fix them.

Why? So that I can make the final decision only when you’ve done all the hard work?

The spirit of the phrase is meant to empower, to encourage reflection so that the request becomes one where the risk has identified and a plan been created. That’s great when it is within normal boundaries and presents no additional side effects. Not so much a problem as simply business as usual.

What makes problems so good?

They tell us that we are looking forward. Actively seeking a way of doing things better.

Problems also indicate that people are talking.

And here’s the really delicate bit. By discussing problems earlier you get the combined input of a wider range of people. Note, that doesn’t mean relinquishing responsibility nor does it mean showing weakness.

Instead, it prevents two significant risks:

Of making decisions without key pieces of information. We frequently have to make decisions without all the information otherwise there would be no case to deal with ambiguity. If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. However we may not realise the significance of what we are proposing without gaining outside view. Anyone who has worked in software development will be familiar with how easily a seemingly small change in one area of a project can have huge repercussions in another.

It also gives an opportunity to break the pattern of “we’ve always done it this way.” If you ask the same people you will tend to get the same advice so consider going outside your usual circle of contacts. That might mean a coach or consultant who specialises in this topic.

Finally, sharing problems is good for you. We sometimes get things out of proportion, get blinded by our own desire to be unshakeable that when we do get stuck we don’t know how to deal with it. Our vision drops, our creativity suffers and that small glitch becomes all consuming.

So keep talking to me.

Problem solving with digital watches

…most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

At a few times each year, a digital watch is handed to me with a request for it to be set to the current time. British Summer Time, GMT or some far flung timezone the trigger event. The owner of the watch does not know how to do it and despite several attempts, can not change the time.

But I don’t know how to complete this task.

I don’t do it frequently enough for it to be worthy of a place in my memory.

From an L&D perspective this should be a suitable case for a resource. A short set of instructions for me to follow to set the new time.

Yet it is typically completed in less time than it would take to search for and read such a guide.

So how would you develop someone to be able to do a task or solve a problem without having seen it before?

What I think I do is look for patterns:

  • One of the buttons will make one of the digits flash
  • One of the buttons will make a different digit flash
  • One of the buttons will change the digit
  • One of the buttons will stop everything flashing

Is four steps enough? Probably not. There are a few alternatives or exceptions that should be encountered:

  • It might be necessary to hold a button longer to achieve the desired result
  • Holding a button longer may make undesirable things happen
  • Not pressing any button may make everything stop flashing
  • Rather than a single press it may be necessary to press two buttons at once

Is that sufficient?

Again, probably not. Some personal attributes are necessary:

  • Be able to endure a number of failed attempts
  • To have good short term memory to prevent repeating unsuccessful patterns
  • To be motivated to compete this task with no expectation of reward

Finally, none of this would work without a well designed user interface. Because even though I can do this with the digital watch, twice a year the cooker is reset by the watch owner following the manual.

Can you do everything?

Pint of beer on wooden bar

My first job was behind the bar in a country hotel.

My boss was very proud of being able to do any job in the place – he could join me serving food & drinks, he could and did make up the rooms, cover shifts in the kitchen, wether as chef or washer up and he’d drive the minibus to take regular customer home after a long and enjoyable evening. If anyone was off sick he would step in without fuss.

That ethos stuck with me for a long time – that the manager should be able to step in and do the job of anyone they are responsible for.

It was many years later that I found myself working in a team where all of us had amassed a great deal of technical knowledge in our respective areas of expertise. We had been hired as trainers based on our prior professional experience.

After one leadership restructure, we noticed our new manager couldn’t do any of our roles. Not one.

And they were great.

Supportive, challenging and focused on our development and our results but they couldn’t do what we did. Yet it wasn’t significant.

Understanding the people and the roles of those you are responsible for is vital. Being able to do their job is not.

 

Picture credit: Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash

About me

This is a place that I can use to share thoughts that interest me. The likely topics are related to my work in Learning and Development or my outside interests, mostly travel.