As a leader, when you want something done, is it better to focus on the problem or the solution?
The problem can be thought of as ‘what’ needs to change. The ‘what’ can be a problem to solve, an opportunity to address, or a desired future state you’d like to see created.
The solution can be thought of as ‘how’ your team will address the problem. The ‘how’ is the approach, direction, or path that will lead to the changes you’d like to see.
So which should you care about more? The ‘what’ or the ‘how’?
Care more about the ‘what’.
As leaders, we often see the problem and the solution clearly. Many times we’ve risen through the ranks and have great subject matter expertise and we can do the same work our team does as well as, if not better than they do.
If that is the case, then isn’t is more efficient to identify the problem and the solution and then spend our energy rallying the team to get working on the solution as quickly as possible?
Maybe. But probably not.
What can only you do?
As a leader, there are many things you are capable of doing well. And there are many things that you enjoy doing. But liking something and knowing how to do well it aren’t the most important criteria a leader should use when deciding how to spend their time. Instead, you need to focus on the things only you can do.
A leader’s job is to set priorities for their team. A leader’s job is to inspire. A leader’s job is to grow the strength and capability of their team. If a leader does these things well, the results will follow.
Being crystal clear on the ‘what’ sets priorities and inspires the team. Supporting the team as they figure out the ‘how’ grows the strength and capability of the team.
Conversely, deciding the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and then expecting the team to execute doesn’t inspire them. It sets priorities, but it is likely the priority is, ‘do what the boss asked,’ rather than a bigger, inspiring goal. And, this approach doesn’t require much critical thinking by the team to help them grow.
How to do it well
To better focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’, try this.
Describe the problem, challenge, or opportunity without including any reference to the solution. Describe a successful outcome using only positive terms for what the end-state will be.
For example, if your team needs to increase customer satisfaction, describe how you measure the current level of satisfaction and how much you’d like that measure to improve over a set time period. If there are recurring issues or complaints that you would like to see eliminated, build that into your vision of success. In short, describe how you as the leader will know that customer satisfaction has improved and the goal has been achieved.
Once you have that vision for the future, share it with your team and ask them to create a plan to produce the outcomes you’re requesting.
This is how you specify the ‘what’ without specifying the ‘how’.
The effects of this approach
When you set priorities and inspire the team in this way, you invite them to be creative with solutions. Because you are not dictating solutions, the team can use their collective experience to generate ideas that will be both more broad, and more deep than the ideas you could come up with as a single individual.
They will feel more engaged because they have some autonomy over how they are doing their work. And, they will be more committed to the success of the chosen solution because they designed it. The level of commitment someone feels towards completing an objective is directly proportional to how much control they had in deciding the approach. The more control the team has over the solution, the more they feel individual responsibility for delivering the results.
And when people and teams feel individual responsibility for delivering results, they generate their own motivation and focus to deliver, rather than relying on someone else to manage them and keep them on task.
Think back to the time before you were a leader. When you were an individual contributor, did you like for your boss to decide the problem and the solution and then expect you to do the work exactly like your boss would?
Or did prefer your leader to be clear on priorities, inspire you to action, and then support you as you designed solutions?
My guess is you wanted to create the solution, not simply execute on a plan someone else created. Make sure you give your team that opportunity.
You may feel that your team isn’t ready to create solutions. You may feel that you’ve got too much to do and there isn’t time to let them figure it out on their own. In this situation, you may feel that the ‘right’ thing to do for the organization is for you to specify the solution and for the team to execute.
There may be times where this approach is necessary, but over the long term, this thinking is a trap. It creates a dynamic where you always make the decisions and your team doesn’t act unless you direct them to.
This isn’t the situation you want to be in, but it is the natural byproduct of setting both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
This trap produces an environment where neither you nor your team will become stronger and more capable over time. The team won’t grow because you have them in execution mode 100% of the time. And you won’t grow because you are so busy designing solutions that you are ignoring things that only you can do. You won’t grow in your strategic thinking if you always specify the solutions to your team.
As a leader, your job is to deliver results for the organization, and to ensure that your team becomes stronger and more capable over time.
Poor leaders deliver neither results nor increased capability. Good leaders deliver results, but their teams don’t improve over time. Great leaders invest first in the strength and capability of their teams and the results are the natural byproduct of that investment.
Great leaders are crystal clear on the ‘what’ and give the team both latitude and support as the team figures out the ‘how’.