Bring Me Problems, Not Solutions!

Bring Me Problems, Not Solutions!

Bringing solutions, and not problems to your boss in a corporate setting is probably good advice, but this approach can be deadly for a startup.

In the startup world, and especially if you’re in the process of building your Minimum Viable Product (MVP), everyone on the team is finding and dealing with a myriad of issues throughout the day. Very often a team member or two will identify a problem, whiteboard several solutions and then review it with the product manager. The product manager agrees, but decides to run the solutions past the rest of the team just to make sure they’re not missing anything. The PM calls the larger team together for a quick huddle, explains what needs to be done and within a few minutes a solution is approved. Great job team!  This is exactly how agile development is supposed to work right?

As a Product Manager at a startup, I lead these exchanges all the time and thought I was doing it right. However, a recent experience introduced me to a subtlety that’s probably been hurting me for years. It started with two developers and I identifying a problem, working out a solution and presenting it to the team. We kicked it around as a team and thought we were good, but one of our teammates was stuck. He raised his hand as said “Something’s off. Can we start at the beginning? What exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve?” So we did. We backed up and explained everything from the beginning and expanded on the finer things we had abstracted away the first time around. Ten minutes later we had a new solution that addressed the problem more directly AND  it was going to take way less time to implement.

It’s a subtle difference, but leading with the solution has a limiting effect on the team’s creativeness. It’s fine to work on problems in small groups and  even come up with candidate solutions. Just don’t lead with them when going back to the team. Instead, explain the problem first and let the team brainstorm for a few minutes. Just be diligent to keep it to a few minutes. If nothing amazing happens, then present your solution and carry-on like normal.

The very next day we received validation in the form of a Seth Godin blog post: Anchoring can sink you. It’s very short and you should go read it right now, but here’s the gist:

Great editors, great strategy consultants, great friends–they’re generous enough and bold enough to un-anchor the conversation and get to the original why at the beginning of a string of decisions. – Seth Godin

So the next time you think you have a solution, give the team five minutes to try and amaze you before you anchor them with it.

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