Bring us your problems rather than solutions

There’s an age old saying that most of us will be familiar with – “bring me solutions, not problems.” It’s often something said by leaders who wish to see progress made by their teams in the face of complex issues. We see this phrase in tv shows, films and even written as an inspirational quote overlaid on backgrounds of sunsets and oceans.By presenting our leaders with solutions to emergent obstacles, we’re able to show that we’ve thought long and hard about the problems were facing and have tried to make progress towards a positive outcome. We might even present our leaders with several potential solutions, sharing pros and cons for each one anrecommending the best option to take forwardAll this proactive problem-solving within teams allows us to make effective decisions, deliver at pace and operate well as an organisation – all things the Civil Service loves! 

However, searching for solutions can sometimes hinder teams. What if, because of our prior knowledge and experience, we’re only aware of half of the potential solutions? What happens if the solutions we come up with are based on assumptions? It’s possible that we’ll miss out on the true best solution because we don’t necessarily know all the answers. 

In the world of digital, we see this quite a lot. As our users and stakeholders are proactive and motivated people, they tend to present digital teams with solutions to problems rather than sharing the problem itself. This can be tricky for digital teams as we’re trained to tackle issues in a different way. Were always seeking the underlying user need or business requirement – the reason why our users want something. By understanding thwhy (the problem), we can then work together to decide on the how (the solution).  

During my time working as a Product Manager in various digital teams, I’ve found that users and stakeholders are in the habit of finding solutions in their day to day work. In one case, stakeholders asked if they could have access to my team’s Kanban board (an artefact used by agile teams to monitor the progress of delivery). The first question I asked was “why?”. Asking for access to the board was clearly a solution that the stakeholders had reached when trying to solve an underlying problem. What I needed to do was understand the problem space, so I met with the stakeholders to chat about what they needed – did they want more visibility of the team’s progress? Or did they want to see the details of the features we were currently building?

After speaking with them, I was able to better understand the problem and what information they needed from the team. In the end, it turned out that sharing the Kanban board wasn’t the best solution  the board didn’t hold the information the stakeholders required. Instead, I shared some alternative documentation with them. By working with the stakeholders to identify the problem it was clear that the initial solution they brought to the team wasn’t the right one, but by working together we were able to meet their needs in the best way possible. 

So, I have a small plea for users and stakeholders of digital teams: please bring us your problems. Digital teams thrive when problem solving and we can collaborate with you to understand the issues you’re experiencing and find the best solutions to meet all of our needs.