In a prison not far from here, there’s a whimsical jailer. Each night he waits until the prisoners are sound asleep and then unlocks all the doors, leaving them open for hours on end. Are these prisoners free?
Daniel Dennett poses this story in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking as a means of illustrating the importance of knowing relevant information within the timeframe that we can do something about it. As the prisoners are unaware of the opportunity to escape, they don’t have the chance to act upon it. And consequently are not actually free.
In our own lives, we similarly fail to act on available opportunities. Not at the behest of some thrill-seeking jailer, but due to our own behaviors. We turn our backs on timely information. We miss genuine opportunities. And we invite this ignorance without even realizing it.
It Starts Innocently Enough
A CEO of a local consulting company told me she’s trying to promote individual responsibility in her employees. She proudly reported that one of her core tenets is to never allow anyone to give her a problem if they don’t already have a solution.
She’s yet another proponent of the management mantra, “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution.”
She went so far as to say, her team now knows that if they don’t have a solution in mind, she won’t even listen to their problem.
Then she looked at me, expecting some sign of agreement. As if, (a) this is some unique concept and (b) it’s actually a good practice.
But I didn’t agree. Because it’s not unique. And worse, it’s a terrible practice.
The Worst Problem is the One That’s Kept Quiet
In the 1970s, the Ford Motor Company recognized there was a defect with their Pinto model. In the event of a rear collision, the fuel tank was likely to rupture and burst into flames. Not a great design feature.
Ford quickly recognized the public safety concern and initiated a nationwide recall. At great expense to the company, they reinforced their commitment to integrity and public safety. And Ford popularity grew to record highs.
Sound familiar? Probably not, since that’s not what happened.
In actuality, Ford recognized the liability but kept silent. Instead of implementing solutions they puttered over the cost and procrastinated on taking action. They issued memos calculating that the cost of 180 lost lives and another 180 serious burn injuries didn’t justify the cost of fixing this issue.
And as a result, courts sided heavily in favor of the plaintiffs, the company was criminally charged with negligent homicide, and public opinion of Ford dropped to a new low.
Whether it’s Ford in the 1970s or Volkswagen in recent years, a 2005 hack into TJX or more recently with Equifax, it’s all the same story. With the same lesson. The worst problem is the one that we keep quiet.
And when we encourage this behavior in our companies, we set ourselves up for major problems.
Lies of Commission, Lies of Omission
Few managers ask their employees to lie to them. But disinformation falls into two categories: bad things we do (acts of commission) and good things we fail to do (acts of omission). If we want to promote an honest culture, we need to focus on both areas.
In his compact but influential book Lying, neuroscientist Sam Harris gives the following impact of dishonesty,
“By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make — and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.”
Whether we’re actively spreading misinformation or just failing to provide the full truth, we limit others’ ability to make accurate decisions. Withholding information becomes no less damaging than misinformation. In each case, we’re causing someone to make a choice based on subpar knowledge.
When we tell people, “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution,” we’re doing just that.
Don’t Bring Me Problems without Solutions
The statement, “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution,” is dangerous because it sounds like a good idea. After all, we pay people to solve problems, not just identify them.
And it makes that point. But it also sends another message as well. That we’re okay with people keeping their problems to themselves.
When we tell an employee to only bring us solutions, we tell him to not bring us an issue until he has that solution. We tell him to keep the problem to himself until he’s come up with a way to solve it.
How long should he wait? An hour? A day? Indefinitely?
What if he can’t think of that solution? Does he admit defeat and fess up to his failure? Or does the issue stay on the back burner, unaddressed, while he tries to think of solutions?
If people know they’ll be criticized for identifying an unsolved problem, why would they bother to identify it?
Responsibility and Transparency
I’m not discounting the importance of responsibility.
We want people to feel responsible for their work. We want people to come up with their own solutions. But these one-size-fits-all mantras are designed to puff up our own egos rather than drive real accountability.
After an issue at Pixar almost cost the company two years worth of movie development on Toy Story 2, Ed Catmull elected not to find and punish the responsible party. Defending this position, he wrote,
“I’m all for accountability. But in this case, my reasoning went like this: Our people have good intentions. To think you can control or prevent random problems by making an example of someone is naïve and wrongheaded.”
Similarly, following a mistake at Bridgewater that cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, Ray Dalio recognized the long-term consequence of punishment as motivation,
“…since mistakes happen all the time, that would have only encouraged other people to hide theirs, which would have led to even bigger and more costly errors.”
People are generally trying their best. And employees typically do want to fix their own problems. We just need to encourage them to do it as part of the team.
In today’s integrated world, effective solutions usually require a team to successfully execute. In these cases, it’s counterproductive to expect every employee to solve their own problems in isolation.
So we need people to identify their own problems. And we can’t encourage them to keep quiet until they’ve worked out a solution on their own.
So What Should We Say?
We want to reinforce the importance of responsibility. But we also don’t want to discourage people from identifying problems.
So instead of reciting this tired mantra of having solutions before saying anything, what if we encouraged people to share their problems immediately. To tell us about the issue and walk us through their thoughts. Then we gave them the time and opportunity to figure out a solution.
They still own the problem, but they’re able to move forward with our confidence. With the benefit of any additional resources that we can give them. We’re informed and more knowledgeable of the current state of our company. As Sam Harris would say, we’ve preserved our autonomy in decision-making. And we’re better able to take advantage of those timely opportunities.