For as long as I can remember, I’ve wrestled with what I call “dead birds.” What I mean by that is when a leader in an organization brings a problem to another leader, but doesn’t have any solution at all in mind. They just drop the problem at the door, like a cat with a dead bird, and then walk away.
That’s not leading well.
One of my favorite TV shows was The West Wing. Check out this clip of Toby, the White House Communications Director, and his deputy Will, when Will brings him a problem with no solution.
I love that line:
“Don’t come in here with half a thing and not be able to, you know, after you’ve walked me to the brink!”
Leaders know that problems and challenges are ever present. I believe that when a problem or challenge is encountered, a leader’s responsibility is to move through these steps:
1) Understand the problem or challenge. That means we have to listen more than we talk. I don’t mean pause between sentences to get a breath – really listen. That’s how we will truly understand the problem or challenge.
One danger is to move to the solution side before you fully understand the problem. That’s trouble; you have to understand the problem before you can move to finding a solution. This may take some time, and leaders hate to waste time. But really understanding the problem is never a waste; how much time will it save from trying solutions that don’t address the real problem?
2) Move to the solution side of the issue. Moaning and groaning about the problem or challenge isn’t going to fix it. You have to move to the solution side to fix it, and true leaders will lead the way.
That means not just defining the problem or challenge, but coming up with a solution or three that could address the issue. After coming up with possible solutions to the problem or challenge, move to step three.
3) Evaluate potential solutions. Good chess players know that you want to think five, six, or a dozen moves out; good leaders do the same. “If I do this, what are the potential ramifications of that? What are the consequences, intended or unintended?”
More than once as I’ve walked through potential avenues of action, I find that two, three, or six steps down that road is a destination I don’t want to go to! That’s not to say that you’ll ALWAYS be able to forecast or foresee what can happen, but by taking the time to evaluate potential solutions and their consequences, you can avoid many bad solutions.
When a leader in our organization comes to me with a problem, and with several possible solutions to talk through, I know they’ve taken the time to move through the steps above and it’s much easier for me to help them. When all they bring me is the problem, my tendency is to send them back to work through steps 2 and 3 above and then come back to talk them through.
Can you think of times in your life or organization when you just got stuck on the problem side? How can you help other leaders (and yourself) move to the solution side of a challenge or problem?