Bring me Problems.

The management-craze of “bring me solutions” has gone too far. I recently met with two spin-out teams of enterprises where the engineers and interim-CEO were scared to share any challenges or problems with corporate management because they were expected to be more “solutions-oriented.” When I went back to one of the senior executives with a problem I observed, she answered: “Oh yes, we’ve seen that a few times. Here’s how we solved it in the past, but there are some risks. […]”. That was incredibly frustrating.

1. Problem Statements are not Complaints.

First, I chatted with the spin-out teams about complaints versus problems.  Complaints are using superlatives such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘as usual’, or ‘again’. Complaints often end with (audible) exclamation points. Complaints often mix various topics and can be seen as ‘venting’. Complaints often sound like a defense against personal attacks. Complaints often include the notion of unfairness.

People will push you to present solutions instead of problem statements if they feel you’re just complaining about it. They think “well if you keep dishing out the blame, how about you step up your game yourself?!”

2. Focus on Transformational Problems.

Second, we discussed the two types of transformational problems:

  1. Problems that — if solved — could have a transformational execution impact (versus incremental betterment) on cost, resources, time of the current strategy and direction.
  2. Problems that are core to determining company strategy.

#2 problems are often pivot points. They are the type of problem statements you have to come back to when you fell in love with your product or solution, and your VC is pausing and asking “What is the original problem we are trying to solve here?”. As VCs, we like both kinds of problems. Some VCs are more comfortable with one type than the other.

If you’re not focused on transformational problems it can be seen as complaining about minor nuisances. There are better ways to use your resources and time than addressing minor problems. People will push you to present solutions instead of problem statements if they feel you’re annoyed by a minor nuisance where you could find a solution yourself, or if you simply seem too lazy to actually think about the problem yourself.

3. Identify The Right People.

Third, we made a map of employees, advisors, mentors, and corporate resources and their specific skill sets and talents. If you bring a problem statement to the wrong person they are going to throw their hands in the air and roll their eyes. That mapping exercise was first met with cynical smirks. “Kindergarten”  I heard someone mutter.

But the exercise had several interesting side effects:

  • Two executives at the mothership had job responsibilities and titles in areas where no one thought they had actually any meaningful input or skill. In fact, they were highly regarded for quite different skill areas — the Peter Principle at work.
  • We identified two areas where we had no coverage: There was neither an inside peer nor an external resource to ask for advice. We quickly came up with a list of mentors and candidates right then and there.
  • People realized that their organization was much bigger, beyond employees. That insight increased the confidence to tackle hard problems.

It quickly became clear why at least anecdotally there had been a pushback against problem statements, some raised eyebrows, and a demand for solutions on several occasions in the past. People will push you to present solutions instead of problem statements out of embarrassment or helplessness when they have no clue how to help you or when what you’re describing is outside their area of expertise.

An Example

Complaint

“Sales always misses their target!  I can’t work like that, they are sabotaging the company! I’m working my ass off to create these product features — that we all agreed on, btw! — and I simply don’t get any feedback and then they blame me! This comes completely out of the blue! We are always executing exactly what you are telling us to do. It’s not fair!”

Problem Statement

“Today I overheard Mike tell Janice from Engineering that Sales missed their target because we have the wrong product feature set. It made me feel upset. I feel there were a few times where that happened in the past, though I don’t have any concrete data on it, just something I feel starts happening more often.”

Here is a good point to stop and ask whether it’s true that Sales missed their target. And if that was a major or rather minor miss. And whether that is a common theme lately. And whether it was because of the wrong feature set or other reasons. Next topic:

“In the past, we decided on product features in our monthly strategy stand-up based on input from Marketing, the CEO, and our own product instrumentation.  Delivery of these features has generally been on time for the past twelve months, though we missed two deadlines by a week, and in one case decided to remove the feature X after our discussion. If Sales is missing the numbers because of lack of product-feature market fit, then our current process is broken somewhere. That’s a problem, no matter who’s fault it is. I believe that if we could solve that problem, it could accelerate our traction significantly and close the big accounts we missed last month.”

You presented facts as good as you have them. You state the problem, not who’s at fault. You state why that is a transformational problem.

“We have some ideas on how to go about it. In the past, you have been extremely helpful with organizing product feedback from the sales organization. I’d like to get your view on it.”

You’re not just throwing your hands in the air. You identified several attack vectors to address the problem. But you’re not here to talk about the galactic approach for peace on earth, you want to talk about a very specific area where you believe that person has valuable insights.

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