There’s an old saying that problems arrive at your office door on two feet. Would your business be stronger and potentially grow faster if solutions, rather than problems, routinely arrived at your door? The answer is almost certainly yes. Plus, one of the biggest factors limiting value in many companies is management teams that can’t or won’t make important decisions without the owner. While there are undoubtedly strategic problems or decisions that only the owner/CEO can resolve, those should be the exception rather than the rule. A healthy organization cannot depend on owners to handle day-to-day, week-to-week problems, and challenges. Eventually, this dependency will slow your company’s growth. Worse, reliance on owners also makes it harder if not impossible to achieve successful exits.
Sometimes the root cause is employees who lack the experience and knowledge to make decisions and solve problems. Better hiring and training solves that issue. However, often the underlying cause is employees expecting owners to provide most if not all the solutions. (Ask yourself—are your employees avoiding making decisions and solving problems because of lack of skill or lack of will?) If your employees are just expecting you to make the decisions and solve the problems, then it’s time to change the environment. There are four simple, easy-to-learn questions that you can employ in discussions with your employees to facilitate this change.
The Four Questions
Imagine that an employee brings you a problem and nothing else. This habit means he or she expects you to solve the problem. If the problem is a crisis or highly time-sensitive, then address it and later debrief the situation with the employee. However, most issues are not so severe nor so immediate, therefore, once the problem and its two feet are in front of you, ask the first question:
“How do you recommend we resolve this?”
The first few times you pose this question, your people probably will not have a recommended solution; they are accustomed to you handling these matters. Whenever possible, send them away with instructions to come back by a specific deadline with a proposed solution. Do not accept responsibility for solving the issue or challenge, as that perpetuates a lack of accountability and ownership of the issue at hand. Soon, your higher performers will start providing recommended solutions when introducing problems. They will learn that not only do you require it but also that they relish the opportunity to contribute. Other employees may noticeably struggle with doing what you ask of them. Both responses reveal essential information about each employee’s skills, training, and confidence levels.
Once your people start offering recommended solutions, you will have to evaluate the merits of their ideas. Sometimes their recommendations will be suitable and effective, occasionally even better than whatever your solution might have been. In those cases, you’ve uncovered in that employee a great resource to tap into going forward. Other times, the proposed solution will be unsound or ineffective. If this occurs, you and your company still benefit because you have gained valuable insight into this person’s need for further training and development.
Once an employee has provided a recommended solution, proceed to the second question.
“What process did you follow to come up with your recommendation?”
Now that your team is proposing solutions introduce the second question. This question is just as important as the first because it reveals how thoroughly your employee has examined, researched, and evaluated the issue at hand. Did the employee shoot from the hip, or did the person exhibit a capacity for higher analysis and thinking? Of the four questions, the first question only tells you whether or not the employee can solve one particular issue. This second question tells you how well that employee can address multiple issues, both present, and future.
If the person’s answer indicates a well-thought process and approach, praise and encourage this person to keep at it. Offer any coaching ideas you may have. If this person’s response indicates a limited or flawed process, address that in the employee’s development and training going forward.
“I am curious—why did you bring this matter to me?”
The third question has the most potential to surprise you. With time, you likely will hear all kinds of answers, any of which can reveal much about this person’s perspective of himself or herself, of you, and about your organization. For example, you may hear something like, “Well, you’ve always handled these matters before…” If that is the answer, then you have just created an opportunity to bring desired change into the business. Alternatively, you may hear something like, “Well, I was not sure who else to bring this to…” Such a response uncovers a need for greater organizational clarity around roles and responsibilities. Do not be surprised if you even hear something like, “Well, I know I am supposed to bring this matter to (Joe), but frankly (Joe) just messes these things up, so I am bringing it to you instead…” Answers to this question can be painful but offer valuable insight into potentially deep-seated issues.
Note that it is important you preface your query with “I am curious…” or a similar phrase. It softens the question. You don’t want to come across as difficult to approach or closed off to your team’s needs.
“Going forward, who do you feel should have the authority to handle this issue/situation/area?”
The fourth and final question opens the door for your people to tell you how they think your organization should be structured and how responsibilities should be delegated. There are only four possible answers. Each answer reveals something important about this person and your team. The four possible answers are:
- The employee asks for future authority to handle this matter
- The employee says you should continue to handle this issue
- The employee names somebody else in the organization, presumably because that person is most qualified in the employee’s eyes
- The employee says he or she does not know
Just like with the previous three questions, the employee’s answer gives insight into how the employee perceives the organization and what aspirations he or she has going forward. Your higher performing people who are eager to advance will likely nominate themselves (response A) to handle this issue and others like it in the future. You must then evaluate whether or not that person is ready for such responsibilities. How that employee has answered the three prior questions will help you make this decision. If he or she is ready for this responsibility, award it to them. Congratulations—you have just eliminated one source of problems coming to you on two feet. If he or she feels ready to handle the responsibility, but you disagree, then this event has opened the way for a frank discussion with this person about what he or she needs to do to earn the desired level of responsibility.
Employees who are unwilling or believe they are unready to handle this responsibility will typically answer the fourth question with response B (you should continue to be responsible) or response C (they nominate a co-worker.) The employee may be right, and if so move forward with their answer. Even in this situation, you and the organization have benefited from the four-question process because you’re now in clear and strong alignment with this employee on this issue. In other situations, you may disagree—you may see that this person could and should take on this responsibility. If that is the case, you now have a clear opportunity to coach the person and build up his or her skills and/or confidence in this area.
Lastly, if the employee has responded to the fourth question with the uncertainty of response D (he or she does not know), you may wish to determine if his or her answer is motivated by disinterest, inexperience, or hesitation to provide an opinion. The ambiguity of response D offers yet another opportunity to discuss the employee’s perceptions of your company and his or her role within it.
We recommend you print the four questions on a laminated card and discreetly place that card on your desk. Until you know the four questions from memory, the card will serve as your cheat sheet when a problem walks into your office. Within a few short months, you may see your culture and team change from one that brings you problems to one that brings solutions. Make your cheat sheet and start asking the four questions today.