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Is Your Team Solving Problems, or Just Identifying Them?

Some teams are really good at identifying problems. When colleagues propose new ideas, team members readily ask tough questions and point out risks. How can you encourage them to think more creatively about solving problems?

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Identifying Problems

Source: HBR.org/ Rebecca Knight

Summary. Some teams are really good at identifying problems. When colleagues propose new ideas, team members readily ask tough questions and point out risks. But they ought to be providing constructive feedback as well. How can you encourage team members to think more creatively about solving problems? For starters, they need to see you doing it. Be a role model. Say: “We’re going to talk about solutions; I don’t want to hear about obstacles just yet. And I am going to get us started.” Ask others to contribute to the conversation. Be disarming. Make sure they know their ideas need not be perfect. When you encounter skepticism, ask probing questions. What could we do differently? How could risks be mitigated? Simple things like creating a trigger word to remind employees to be solutions-oriented can make a big difference. That way, if the conversation veers off course, colleagues can help get it back on track.

How can you, the manager, help change the culture on your team from one that’s focused on identifying problems to one that fixes them? How can you set new norms that engender a positive tone? And what’s the best way to reward employees for thinking critically while also making helpful suggestions?

What the Experts Say
Having a team that’s quick to identify problems and voice potential obstacles is not necessarily a bad thing. “Intellectually honest resistance” to a new idea is worth airing, according to Liane Davey, professional speaker and author of the book The Good Fight. But when your team is overly focused on finding problems instead of solving them, it can be detrimental to productivity and morale. “Talent is attracted to possibility, opportunity, and agency,” she says. “You will lose great people if your team is always talking about why it can’t, rather than about how it can.” And yet, says Heidi Grant, social psychologist and author of the book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, the best teams balance the two. As the manager, your job is to “create an environment that allows for both creativity and analytical thinking” in order to come up with solutions that are informed by reality. Here’s how.

Recognize underlying issues.
For starters, you need to appreciate that your team’s tendencies are not unusual. There are several deep-rooted dynamics at work, according to Grant. When faced with a new challenge or idea, many of us react by “getting into the details and focusing on obstacles,” she says. “We ruminate on the problem and its many facets rather than thinking of ways around it.” This predisposition “gets compounded when we work with other people — there’s a social element” that often exacerbates a group’s inclination to think in negative terms. This social aspect is more or less evident depending on the personalities that compose your team.
Hierarchy also plays a role. “Managers and people in power think about the ‘why’ — the vision,” Grant says. “The less power you have, the more you tend to think about the details.” Understanding these dynamics will help you map out the process of changing your team’s culture.

Reflect on your goal.
You need to be clear about the changes you’re looking for from your team. “You want your team to be more ‘solutions-focused,’ which is a bit like saying you want your team to be more innovative or more agile,” says Grant. Many managers aspire to those things, “but it’s not obvious how to get from here to there.” Consider how your team currently responds to new ideas and proposals. What, or who, are the sources of opposition? Where does your team get stuck? Then, think about what you’d like your team to do differently. This will help you define the specific behaviours you seek.

Talk to your team.
Next, Grant recommends talking with your team about your observations and what you’d like to see them do differently. Explain that you want the team to do a better job of “looking for alternate routes,” rather than dwelling on the details of a problem. Ask team members for their take on what stands in the way of that and then listen carefully to how they respond. You might hear, for instance, that team members believe they’re under a lot of time pressure, or perhaps they feel that new ideas aren’t welcome.
Maybe the team fixates on problems because people feel overwhelmed, says Davey. They might resent you asking them to focus on solutions when they’re already overstretched. “They’re thinking, ‘I can’t cope with the status quo, how am I going to manage tomorrow?’” If that’s the case, you need to think about how to “solve the bandwidth question”; otherwise, “you’re not going to get buy-in.” Ask what you can do to help. What tasks can you remove from their plates? “You need to be constantly pruning the workload,” she says. “Retire old ways of working so that you have room for new ones.”

Set new norms.
Changing your team’s culture requires getting people on board with new ways of thinking and speaking, according to Grant. To accomplish this, you need to set new norms “that deliberately lift up other ways of working.” Norms are powerful because we’re heavily influenced by other people’s behaviour, she says. Simple things like “beginning each meeting with a positive reflection” or creating “a trigger word to remind people to be solutions-oriented” can make a big difference, she says. That way, if the conversation veers off course, colleagues can help get it back on track.
In that spirit, Grant recommends empowering employees to hold others on the team accountable and speak up if someone is “being too problem-focused.” She acknowledges that encouraging employees to call out colleagues will be hard. “It doesn’t come naturally.” But ultimately, it’s worthwhile because “it will help speed up the shift in how people work together.”

Role model.
In order to inspire your team to think more creatively about solving problems, “others need to see you doing it,” says Grant. “You need to put your ideas out there.” Be direct and straightforward. “Say, ‘We’re going to talk about solutions now; I don’t want to hear about obstacles just yet. And I am going to get us started.’” Be disarming. Make sure team members know that their ideas don’t need to be perfect. “When people are afraid of making a mistake or they’re worried about being evaluated negatively, they get risk averse.” The implicit message ought to be: This is a safe place to propose new ideas. Use “your body language, tone, and words to invite others into the conversation.”
Bring in new information.

Including outside voices can also be effective. Invite a consultant or someone from the accounting or legal department to attend a team brainstorming session, Davey says. “They have data and credibility to contribute” and might spark new strands of conversation.

Deal with challenges productively.
When you encounter resistance to a new idea, it’s important to listen — but also to make sure that team members’ fault-finding does not monopolize the conversation, says Davey. Say, for instance, your colleague discounts a possible new strategy because “the company tried it once decades ago and it didn’t work.” First, you must “validate their feelings and their perspective.” Say something like, “‘You’re concerned that we tried it before, and it wasn’t successful. That’s a good point.’” If you fail to acknowledge your colleague’s objection, “the other person might feel bruised and not heard.”
Second, you need to figure out a way to address the resistance in a productive way. You could either create a so-called “parking lot” where you place concerns (writing them on a white board that you’ll return to later in the meeting, for example). Or, even better, start a dialog to explore possible solutions. “Ask questions to continue the conversation.” Davey suggests: “‘Hypothetically, if we could do it again, what would it look like? How could risks be mitigated? What would we have to solve for?’” The goal, she says, is to combat “lazy cynicism” by ensuring that there’s “fact-based rigor” behind any concerns.

Reward positive behaviours.
When you observe team members seeking to solve problems productively, you need to “publicly affirm that they’re doing the right thing,” says Grant. “New habits don’t form unless they’re rewarded.” Acknowledge great ideas and creative thinking. Be genuine. “Say the positive thing you’re thinking out loud” in order to “increase the sense that norms are shifting.” Other team members will take notice of the boss’s support and approval. “Social affirmation is powerful for changing group behaviour.” Davey agrees. “There’s a certain amount of pride” that employees feel when their manager says, “‘This is what we’re looking for.’”

Principles to Remember
Do

  • Reflect on how you can create an environment that allows for both creativity and critical thinking.
  • Practice what you preach. Role model the problem-solving behaviours and attitude you would like to see in your team.
  • Create a trigger word to remind team members to focus on solutions. That way, when conversations veer off course, colleagues can help get it back on track.

Don’t

  • Ignore or discount resistance to an obstacle. Instead, explore possible solutions by asking questions.
  • Go it alone. Invite a consultant or a member of a different department to attend a team meeting. They might spark new strands of conversation.
  • Be stingy with compliments. Publicly acknowledging team members’ creative thinking helps increase the sense that norms are shifting.

Comment: Some points raised in this article may seem obvious but it’s always a good reminder to check-in with yourself and your team. Is your team really solving problems?

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