“Come with a solution” might be bad advice

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Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

“Never come to me with a problem, only come with solutions”

-Everyone’s Boss

I’m going to tell you that this can be really bad advice; advice you should ignore.

Before I do that, let me defend your poor managers and remind you why it makes sense for your them to tell you to come prepared with a solution, rather than bringing unresolved issues to the discussion:

Those three reasons add up to a pretty decent rationale for why you should come to a discussion with a solution, rather than just a problem.

AND…

There are many situations where it’s just not a safe, efficient, or an effective way to go. That’s because there are situations where jumping straight to a solution can be interpreted badly.

When Starting with a Solution is Bad Advice

Starting with a solution is a bad idea when:

You Have A Solution in Search of a Problem

If your audience isn’t aware that there’s a problem, they’re not going to respond well to the idea of changing something for the sake of changing it. As my sister-in-law says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.”

Sure, you might have been through a robust thought process that led you to identify and analyze a significant concern, but if that whole process was in your head, it’s opaque to everyone else.

In this case, start with some evidence that suggests you have a problem.

You Have A Different View of the Problem

In some cases, everyone is clear that there’s a problem, you’re just not in agreement about what the problem actually is, or where it comes from. In that case, your proposed solution probably makes sense for your take on the problem, but it’s wholly inadequate or even counter-productive in solving someone else’s version of the issue.

As you share what seems to you like an obvious answer, you’ll see your colleagues scratch their heads wondering how in the world that solution is supposed to help with their version of the problem.

In this case, start with aligning on the nature of the problem.

A Question of Authority

Another common mistake in coming to the table with a solution is when your solution crosses into the territory of another member of the team. It’s one thing to suggest doing something over which you have decision making authority; it’s another to suggest changes in someone else’s remit.

It’s amazing how your well-intentioned suggestion can be misinterpreted as either meddling, or worse, a suggestion that the person doesn’t know how to do their job.

In this case, start with asking the person responsible to share their perspective on how to solve the problem.

Only when everyone in the room: 1) agrees that there’s a problem, 2) is aligned on what that problem is; and, 3) accepts that it’s your problem to solve, should you start a conversation by proposing a solution.

If the existence or nature of the problem is in question; or if the solution lies beyond your purview, it’s worthwhile to broach the topic with more questions than answers. You’ll still want to be prepared by having thought through the issue and identified a few potential solutions, it just means you’ll get the opportunity to share your ideas in a calm, orderly way, rather than having to wade into a melee that you created.

Further Reading

Should you pick your battles?

Team Building Exercise: Pass the Problem

How to deliver feedback

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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