Problem Solving as a Culture

Typically I start my posts with a quote but I just couldn’t that one that inspired me to start my post with. But then, it showed up. I have been reading Creativity, Inc. lately about Ed Catmull and the story of Pixar and one statement struck me (as I recently posted a recommend on this book) …

“When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.” – Ed Catmull

I really like this. I live by the idea  me and I accept not being the smartest guy in the room (as it is truly difficult to stay versed deeply in technology and sharpen the leadership skills). But what I also believe is that if I build the right team and help them unleash their creativity, and make failure a concept separated from fear that I be a part of helping to find the best solutions.

This got me to really thinking on a dilemma that I think a lot of leaders face, are they “problem solvers” or “solution enablers”? What I mean by this is do they always seek to provide the answer or do they work to create a culture in which people collaborate and are openly candid to allow folks to “find the best solution or focus their own inspiration”? I think the latter is much more valuable to an organization.

Now, I get the allure of being the “goto guy” where you are the clutch player that people turn to in the last minutes of a tight game. It creates an increased sense of self worth, makes you feel like you are driving something for the business and being a real team player. Now what often happens to folks like this is they get promoted to manage others based on their successful track record and instead of making that mental shift to the responsibility of being a leader, they retain the idea of being that “goto guy” as part of their management style.

Now before folks get too worked up over this statement, let me be clear; becoming a managerial level leader isn’t a place that a person goes to die (although some may disagree) but it does possess its own set of skills, needs and challenges that can often be a far departure than that of being in a technical role (which has its own sets of skill, needs and challenges as well). What I mean though is that often I see really sharp technical people who become leaders and never seem to realize that their role has changed. They spend a whole lot of time fighting all the things they dislike about the new role and try to cling to what they did before as much as possible. They become closet coders, weekend code warriors, first lines of defense and so on. Although they are put in a position to lead others based on their past performance and grow more folks like them, it’s a struggle to not be that person that got them there.

Trust me, I personally anguished the death of a former role for some time when I moved into a group leader role and struggled really hard to try and figure out how to be both. What I found is someone has to be committed in either role and until I decided to do that, I would be ineffective at both. So, I said my goodbyes to that role and vowed to stay current in concepts surrounding it (should I care to return to that role) and realized someone always had to do the things that needed to be done that I as a technical person avoided like a vampire and sunlight.

So let’s get out of the ditches and back on the road here.

Being a Problem Solver

So the tendency of a person who has not truly embraced a new leadership role may be to continue to provide solutions when faced with a problem. Or maybe it was explicitly expressed to them that this is why they are being asked to assume this role. There is nothing wrong with that, I mean who wants problems to fester with no solutions?

But where is the long term benefit to the organization and by doing this are you possibly creating a culture “waiting to be told what to do”? How are they helping to grow problem solving as part of the bedrock of their culture?

Being a Solution Enabler

I have always liked this idea. I remember the first time I experienced a manager who believed that this approach was necessary, or possibly even fundamental, to my professional growth.

When I encountered an obstacle she would, instead of giving me “the” answer, help me explore my assumptions, state my obstacle clearly so I understood what the problem truly was and turn it over with me while giving me candid feedback (positive and negative) as I worked through it towards the solution.

At the time, I sometimes thought; “this woman is really a smart with a wealth of experience in this field, why does she not just tell me how to overcome this so I can move on and get this thing done”?

But after we performed this activity a few times, I saw something slowly change in me. I began doing the same exercise for myself and in her absence. I reached out to smart colleagues I worked with and collaborated with them to work through the obstacles and we started collaborating more together just like this. That’s when it hit me and actually had an impact on me, she was trying to grow a culture of people who solved the problems and not one that came to her as the smartest person in the room for the answer everytime. She knew she would not be there forever with this company and I believe she felt that the best thing she could do for it was to create a problem solving culture.

There was no doubt in each situation I brought to her, that given her experience she could have just figured it out for me and just popped out a course of action. We actually talked about this later in life and she expressed that sometimes it was hard for her to stay true to encouraging me through this process when she saw me knocking on the door of a solution only to turn away and doubt my own idea. But she said she knew that this was the right thing to do.

But what she knew then, and that I learned more completely much later in my career, was that by creating a larger benefit to the organization and to my personal growth was to let me struggle, let me fail if necessary, begin teaching me to accept candid feedback without immediately becoming defensive when it was critical and helping me become a problem solver that saw the benefit of collaboration.

While I learned some of these lessons while working there, several came much later through professional maturity, humility and observation of seeing problem solvers, not solution enablers.

But as I read Ed Catmull’s similar transition in defining the identity of Pixar following their initial success with Toy Story, he indicated a similar approach as he made a clear ead distinction between the concepts of candor and honesty. But the underlying idea was that through his creation of a group inside Pixar called “the braintrust” was to encourage candor within the company as a part of the cultural fabric by providing feedback and helping directors, screenwriters and animators to stay true to “telling a good story” as a core value of Pixar. Through approaching it this way, he removed use of the idea of “being honest and the moral stigma attached inherently to a concept of honesty (in which being dishonest is a bad thing) to one of being candid, which does not carry such a moral connotation as we do not vilify someone for their candor in the same regard.

I really liked that this intentional semantic consideration helped begin creating openness in which feedback early and often was seen as a good thing and that the idea of being stuck was not necessarily bad either.

So, take a deep breath, step back and be candid with yourself. Are you a “problem solver” or a “solution enabler”? Do you toss out solutions without asking anyone to explore the problem with you?

Or, are you growing a culture of people who are unafraid to seek feedback (and providing consistent opportunities to do so) and whose culture accepts candid feedback, good or bad, as a part of assistance in the creative process?

I personally want to realize the value that my former manager instilled in me and help people process and solve their own problems through collaboration and feedback. Do I have a long ways to go, maybe so. But I am surrounded by people who continually grow so it encourages me to grow as well.


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