Dumb ideas; you hear them from your colleagues all the time, right? It’s so hard not to roll your eyes and launch into a litany of reasons why they’ll never work. But that tends to start a fight.

Recently, I wrote a post that offered an alternative to contradicting, criticizing, or belittling a colleague who suggests a dumb idea. You can read it here. That post was based on the idea that, in most cases, it’s not that your colleagues are daft, it’s just that they have the propensity to throw out random suggestions to unidentified problems. As a remedy, I suggested that people stop coming into discussions with solutions.

Even as I said it, I recognized that urging you not to start with a solution is counter-cultural advice, so I promised I would devote a post to justifying my heresy. Here goes.

First, let’s start by trying to understand where, “Never come to me with a problem, only come with solutions” came from because the idea isn’t without merit.

  1. Requiring solutions and not just problems significantly cuts down on the drama and moaning people have to endure. If you’re a slacker who just wants to complain but aren’t willing to do something to make it better, you get weeded out.
  2. It develops your critical thinking skills. To get to a proposed solution, you have to analyze the root of the problem and be creative and resourceful to identify potential solutions. That’s good for you.
  3. It prevents you from shifting your accountability onto others. We are busy people and if you can do your share of the heavy lifting, it means everyone else can focus more on their own priorities.

Those three reasons add up to a good rationale for why you should come with a solution, rather than 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 getting aligned 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, ask 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 starting an argument.

Further Reading

Should you pick your battles?

Team Building Exercise: Pass the Problem

How to deliver feedback