Communicate improvement as problems

  • Improve your ability to align and collaborate with others when solving problems and designing solutions
  • Increase the probability of producing a better solution
  • Get agreement around what matters and what doesn't more quickly and with less frustration
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I understand what is meant by communicating improvement as problems

Communicating improvement as problems means that, when you realize that something could or should work better, you attempt to communicate the problem the current situation produces, rather than jumping straight to proposing (or even constructing) a solution.

I understand why people normally have a tendency to present solutions instead of problems 3

Most of us enjoy the pride we feel when someone points to us for a job well done or a great fix to a problem.

The desire to experience this feeling can be a strong emotional driver in proposing a solution early on. After all, if I don't propose any solutions, there's a zero chance I'll get any credit.

If this is an issue within your environment, discuss the possibility of commending problem suggestions on the same level as solution suggestions, in order to cultivate a culture where the raising of problems feels appreciated and worthwhile.

Humans are an impatient bunch. Once we realize a problem, we want to implement a solution as quickly as possible to reduce the pain and start reaping the rewards.

Unfortunately, the quickest solution is not always the best solution. Hence, if the problem is one we care about, it makes sense to spend a little extra time understanding it and the viable solution options in order to produce the best possible outcome.

Some people choose to adopt the mantra "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions".

If you are met with this feedback during an attempt at a problem-oriented approach, consider if the person you are speaking with consider themselves to be responsible for designing or solution, or if you are better off discussing the problem with someone else.

I understand why it's better to present improvement potential as problems rather than solutions 5

The following is an excerpt from the article Hold Off On Proposing Solutions (a highly recommended, 4 minute read):

Norman R. F. Maier noted that when a group faces a problem, the natural tendency of its members is to propose possible solutions as they begin to discuss the problem. Consequently, the group interaction focuses on the merits and problems of the proposed solutions, people become emotionally attached to the ones they have suggested, and superior solutions are not suggested. Maier enacted an edict to enhance group problem solving: “Do not propose solutions until the problem has been discussed as thoroughly as possible without suggesting any.” 

Different people have different skills, experiencs and viewpoints. As a result, putting two or more people together when designing a solution usually yields a superior outcome.

Imagine that you're working with a designer for a project. If you continuously present that person with proposed solutions to what you consider to be design problems, that person might get discouraged and even offended, both of which will hinder an effective collaboration.

Have you ever felt frustrated when someone did not respond to your solution in the manner you expected?

Presenting people with a solution does not mean that they automatically understand the problem. Or even worse, they might misinterpret the problem based on their belief of what your solutions attempts to accomplish.

If you've ever experienced someone not feeling as strongly about a solution as you do, it might be because they did not care for the solution. But that doesn't neccessary mean they don't care about the problem.

By better exposing the problem, you can better understand and align around to which extent this is a problem worth solving.

I communicate an improvement as a problem

To communicate a potential for improvement as a problem, consider using the observation format.

An observation consists of two parts:

  • A summary of what you have observed
  • A description of what you belive to be the consequence of your observation

Here's an example:

  • Summary: The coffee machine is out of coffee
  • Consequence:  As an employe, I get cranky when I don't get my coffee-fix. As a Key Account Manager, I'm unable to offer our clients coffee during meetings.

By using the observation format you enable effective and efficient alignment around a common understanding of the problem, all the while avoiding assigning blame for the current situation.

Then, once relevant stakeholders have been onboarded into the problem, optional short and long term solutions can be brainstormed and discussed.

I communicate the context of a problem

Communicating the context of a problem means communicating in which situation the problem occurs or appears.

Communicating context usually makes it much easier for the recipient to understand where and why a particular problem occurs, which in turn can have a significant effect on the motivation and incentives for solving a particular problem.

Some examples of problem contexts include:

  • When attempting to solve a particular task in a particular project, checklist or process
  • When attempting to practice a responsibility in the context of one of the roles we hold
  • When attempting to get a better grasp of a skillset or particular skill


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