Don't you believe it ... solutions are better than problems

There are times when it's good to identify a problem - even if there's no obvious solution.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How many times have you heard someone say: 'Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions'? Yet the grain of truth in this aphorism is buried under a whole bushel of caveats. It may be good to encourage people to think on their feet, but it's very bad for bosses to suggest they aren't interested in problems. The reluctance of management to hear about problems was a major contributor to the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986, the explosion at BP's Texas City refinery in 2005 and the injury-free but chaotic launch of Heathrow's Terminal 5 in '08. Less dramatic consequences of this approach include...

It confuses problem-spotting with problem-solving. Of course, life would be simpler if the person who spotted a problem was the one who had to fix it. But suppose sales identifies a problem with the product: competitors are innovating faster than you are, and your product is falling behind and becoming harder to sell. Now this could be special pleading by sales, but it could be true. If management wants to hear about solutions only, who in sales is going to raise this issue?

It ignores organisational reality. Some issues require co-operation across business functions to solve: the CEO may be the only one who can facilitate that. For example, operating a business with sensible stock levels requires input from sales, manufacturing and finance. Someone from any of these functions could spot a problem, but none can solve it alone.

This may not be an appealing message in this age of empowerment and individual responsibility. But you have to make sure you hear about the problems you need to hear about, even if that means hearing about problems you don't. The alternative is just too risky.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Read more at

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