The Secret to Building a Team of Problem Solvers

Karin Hurt and David Dye are keynote speakers and the award-winning authors of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul. 

If you’re like most managers we work with you just don’t have enough time. Your open door has become a revolving door of employees bringing you problems that need solving. So how do you turn these problem-bringers into problem solvers?

It’s easy to just jump in and be the hero. After all, it feels good to help and your employee will be grateful. But if you consistently give your team the answers, you’ve taught them one thing—continue to bring you more problems to fix.

Now, what if you have five or six such needy people on your team bringing you problems? Now you have no time left to do the work only you can do, and you’re working longer and longer hours just to keep up.

The good news is that there’s a better way.

9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems On Their Own

When a team member comes to you for help (assuming they’ve been trained and this is a problem they should be able to solve on their own), rather than jumping in with the answer, you have an opportunity to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The following nine questions will help you to free up your own time and increase your team’s ability to think and problem solve on their own.

1. What is your goal?

Start here to check for understanding and ensure that the team member has a good grasp on their task and is focused on the right goal.

2. What have you tried?

This question ensures you don’t spend time covering ground they’ve already explored. It also requires your team member to make some effort before requesting help.

3. What happened?

Finish gathering facts by asking them to talk about the consequences of the solutions they’ve already tried. Sometimes just the act of talking about it will help them figure out a new solution.

4. What did you learn from this?

With this question, you ask them to reflect on their experience. Often, the act of examining what happened and what learning they can draw from it will spark a new approach.

5. What else do you need?

This is a check to see if there is additional training or equipment they need. Sometimes your team member will say something like: “You know if I knew how to use pivot tables, I think I could do this.” Great – connect them to a spreadsheet guru for a quick lesson and get them moving.

Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks.

KARIN HURT & DAVID DYE

6. What else can you do?

Now it’s time to have them generate some new options. When you ask this question, one of two answers usually happens. Your team member might say, “I don’t know” or they might offer some options, eg: “Well, I was thinking I could try option A or I could try option B.”

If they say, “I don’t know,” we’ll come back to that with question #9. Let’s assume for now that they offer some options.

7. What do you think will happen if you try option A? What about option B?

You’re asking your team member to explore the potential consequences of their proposed solution. This gives you insight into their thinking and helps them think through what makes their choices viable or desirable.

If they are missing a critical piece of information, you can supply it here without telling them what to do. Eg: “One additional factor you will want to know is that the customer considers that a vital feature.”

8. What will you do?

This is the critical step that you’ve been leading up to. As you helped them review the facts, reflect on what they learned, explore alternatives, and the consequences of each choice, the goal is for your team member to choose their solution.

When they choose it, they own it. If they choose something that seems to be a clearly inferior option, you can ask them to help you understand why they think that’s their best option. If they don’t understand some of the other issues affecting the decision, you can also add those to the mix.

9. Super-Bonus Question

You might be wondering what to do if the person replies to one of your questions with, “I don’t know.”

No problem!

“I don’t know” can mean many things. Rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.

More often, “I don’t know” translates to:

    • “I’m uncertain.”
    • “I don’t want to commit before I know where you stand.”
    • “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
    • “Will you please just tell me what to do?”
    • “I’m scared about getting it wrong.”

Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue – to ease the person through their anxiety and train their brain to engage. This is where the super-bonus question comes in.

With one question you can re-engage them in the conversation and move through “I don’t know” to productivity.

When someone says, “I don’t know,” your super-bonus question is: “What might you do if you did know?”

It’s like magic.

The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas, brainstorm solutions, and move on as if they were never stuck. It’s amazing and hard to believe until you try it.

The super-bonus question works because it addresses the source of the person’s “I don’t know.” If they were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off with tentative language: “If you did know…” Now your team member doesn’t have to be certain or look for your approval and they’re free to share whatever they might have been thinking.

If he or she hadn’t thought about the issue or didn’t want to think about it, you’ve lowered the perceived amount of energy they have to spend. You’re not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversational “What might you do?”

Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks. When you do this for your team, you train their brain to engage, to push through their ordinary blocks, and increase their performance. Ultimately, they will be able to have these conversations with themselves and will only need to bring the very serious issues to you.

You’ll know you’re succeeding when a team member tells you: “I had a problem. I was going to come and talk it over with you, but then I thought, you’re just going to ask me all these questions. So I asked myself all the questions instead and I figured it out.”

Celebrate those moments and encourage them to start asking those questions of the people around them. You’ve just increased your team’s capacity for problem-solving, freed up time to focus on your work, and…you’ve built a leader!

Free Winning Well Toolkit

You can download a free easy-to-follow PDF of this process (along with other tools) by clicking here.

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