You Don’t Have to Have All the Answers (Isn’t That a Relief?)

So many leaders get bombarded with questions and then feel like they have to have all the answers—and when they don’t, they either become anxious or spend a ton of time trying to fish answers out of the people they think should know.

Sound familiar?

While working on my Master’s in Design Thinking Certification from MIT, I discovered the design thinking structure they proposed aligned remarkably well with the process for problem solving and decision making that I had been using with my teams for years.

Are you ready to stop feeling pressured to know everything and reduce the time you spend trying to come up with answers?

The Template

Years ago, I created the template below and began having my teams use it whenever they had a problem to figure out or a solution they wanted to implement. They’d have to fill it out and present it to me before any decision on moving forward could be made.

Yes, that approach does put them in the role of advocating for whatever solution they think needs to be implemented. But the real key to the approach is that, in addition to the convergent thinking that’s typically applied to reach a solution, it also drives divergent thinking to solve it.

What’s the difference? And why do you need both? Convergent thinking is the process of working out a concrete solution to a problem; Divergent thinking is the process explores multiple possible solutions in order to produce creative ideas. Typically, managers and employees apply convergent thinking—“We have this problem. Why don’t we solve it by doing X?” But by jumping to a particular solution that way, they don’t consider other options—or more importantly, the viability of those options. The template guides them through a divergent thinking process to think through alternate possibilities and the solutions they may lead to.

Step 1 – Name it

The process begins with the submitter writing the name of the issue. This sounds simple, but it’s a powerful start—after all, how can you deal with something if you don’t know what to call it? Doctors have a name for every condition medicine treats…would you want to start a treatment if your doc couldn’t even tell you what it is the treatment is for?

Step 2 – State the Issue

Once it’s named, the submitter has to describe what’s happening, the symptoms of the problem, and who/what it’s impacting. Stating the issue this way—in just a few bullet points—not only gets the issue in a fixed form on the template, but it leads the employee to think the issue through. Now, rather than an idea or perception in someone’s head, we have a concrete concern to examine. This gives us a shared image of the issue and a common language to use to discuss it. This statement doesn’t have to be lengthy; at this point, it functions as a sort of an executive summary of the issue that reviews the problem and its impact so you can make informed decisions—for example, weighing how important it is to solve versus the expense of solving it.

Step 3 – Three Solutions

Here, the submitter writes down three possible solutions to the issue. Why three? This is where divergent thinking comes in. The number three is important psychologically: One solution is just the first resolution the employee has come up with to present. With two solutions, there’s choice, but there’s also dichotomy, and the employee will tend to end up presenting you with a “good” choice and a “bad” choice. This dichotomy limits the evaluation of the choices, as people tend to want to avoid the “bad” choice.

But once someone works out three choices, it unlocks a perspective beyond “good” choice and “bad” choice. It detaches them from the fear of making the wrong choice and eliminates the limiting belief to allow the choices to be seen on a scale of “good,” “better,” and “best.” Now, the solutions can be viewed in terms of various pros and cons, costs and ROI, or—as I like to simplify it when reviewing the form with my team—what each option’s potential upside is. Keeping the perspective less formal this way again encourages looking at the business case in simpler terms and focusing on problem-solving as opposed to consequence-avoidance.

Step 4 – Recommendation

In the end, submitters are required to recommend which solution is best and explain why: “I recommend Solution C because it’s the cheapest” or “I recommend Solution A even though it’s expensive because it addresses every component of the problem, and this is such a big issue that the money to solve it is the least of our concerns.” Recommendations like this give you a real sense of your submitter’s thinking on the issue.

The most important thing about this template and the process framework it drives is that it saves YOU a lot of time and a lot of effort. Whenever anybody comes to you saying, “We have this problem,” or “I think we should do this project,” or “Making this change is critical,” you simply hand them the template, tell them to work through it, and give them a timeframe to present the completed presentation to you. Remind them, too, that this isn’t additional work or proof of the problem or need they’ve identified—rather, this is a way for them to help you understand the issue they’ve identified and their best solution.

One caveat here: when a team member takes the template, does all the work, and presents it to you but you elect not to pursue their suggested solution, be sure you explain to the individual who did all the work why you’re declining. Nothing will backfire harder on you than a passionate team member going through all this effort and then feeling blown off. Always explain how you appreciate the work the team member did, that you understand the issue presented and believe the solution was thought out, but that budget constraints or competing priorities (or whatever) are the reason you can’t move forward on their proposed solution right now and you’ll hold on to the proposed solution for consideration down the road. This feedback is essential because the individuals who spend the time to complete this for you obviously really care—and want to see that you care as well.

And if they don’t come back with it? Honestly, all that means is that the issue wasn’t that important to the individual in the first place. No time is wasted.

The Upside for You

With this process in place, the issues that get brought to you are the ones your team members believe are important. The problems will be better described, and the solutions thought out by the people they’ll most effect, with ROI and impact of the change already figured.

If you want to empower your team, if you want better solutions, if you want to save time—and if you really want to stop being the one who has to know all the answers—give this process a try. It provides your team a framework to challenge their assessments, to encourage them to apply divergent thinking to come up with multiple solutions, and then bring them back to convergent thinking to decide the best option out of the ones they’ve identified.

You don’t need to have all the answers. Let your team find them instead. You—you lead by providing your team the best structure to find those answers and the best environment to keep them engaged in the process.

If you are interested in obtaining the template and seeing if this could work for you, I invite you to a 15 minute phone call to get to know each other better. Use the Link below to easily see and schedule time to that with me.