Bring Me Solutions, Not ProblemsPutting too many monkeys on his or her back is a common frustration of many leaders. This happens when a team member approaches the leader with a problem or issue (“a monkey”) and the leader adds it the tribe of howling monkeys on his or her back.

In discussing “monkey management” methods, workshop/retreat participants will often declare that their approach is to tell team members “don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution.” This not only makes the monkey problem worse, it encourages moose to move in as well. Moose-on-the-table, like elephant-in-the-room, is an issue or problem that’s stifling communication and blocking a team’s effectiveness (see a 77-second video explanation at “Too Many Trips to the Zoo”).

Lazy leaders asking for solutions are rotten coaches. If difficult problems had obvious solutions life would be easier for everyone. Tough issues call for open discussion, root cause analysis, and brainstorming solutions. Putting two heads — or a whole team — together and following a structured inquiry and mutual learning process will lead to new and unexpected solutions.

We see the power of this time and again during leadership team “moose hunting” exercises. When the team process allows the most critical issues to be objectively (and often anonymously) put on the table for deeper probing and brainstorming the outcome is invariably different than most leaders expected.

In a recent two-day retreat we hunted moose in an exercise that allowed team members to anonymously identify and vote on barriers/issues that will hold back progress toward the vision of their desired culture the day before. The team leader was surprised by what emerged and the depth of honest conversation and planning for change. Most participants agreed the team needed to find ways to regularly have these courageous conversations. They’ve been stuck in a pattern of the leader and a few stronger and more vocal VPs debating issues in familiar patterns while the majority of the team were spectators. New solutions and actions that hadn’t been discussed before emerged for this process of discovery.

In his article, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” in this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review, Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, provides a series of questions to see if a leader is trapped in a bubble. A few critical ones get to the heart of effective coaching, monkey management, and reducing the moose:

  • How many questions do you ask versus statements do you make in typical conversations?
  • How often do you wait silently (three seconds or more) for others to answer your questions?
  • How many times this week have you said, “I don’t know” in response to a question?
  • When was the last time your provocative questions gave rise to a catalytic story — one that radically transformed some part of your organization for the better?

Get out of the zoo. Don’t fall into the bring-me-solutions trap. Develop your coaching skills and build a problem-solving culture to elevate your team’s solution seeking effectiveness.