The problem with Allen Harris

Many teams are good at identifying problems, but not at solving problems. The issues get put on the owners’ desk and, as a result, the owner spends more time putting out fires than building their companies.

I recently rewatched “The West Wing,” the televised political drama tracking Jed Bartlet’s White House administration. President Bartlet was known for asking, “What’s next?”

As Bartlet explained it, “When I say, ‘What’s next?’ it means I am ready to move on to other things.”

Bartlet used it as a motivational line, letting his team know they covered the issue at hand and are going to maintain momentum by moving on to the next thing. It’s efficient, but not necessarily the best way to build a team.

I use something like that sentiment at times. If someone brings me an idea that doesn’t quite fit, we’ll discuss why, then quickly move on to what’s next. That works. However, once upon a time, I handled good ideas clumsily. We could get it done, but I would immediately list caveats (the time to do that is during the pre-mortem meeting).

In my mind, I was complimenting their idea by giving it ample consideration. I liked the idea enough to immediately consider the team’s challenges in getting from Point A to Point B. My problem was that I didn’t sound supportive; I sounded like I found all the reasons we shouldn’t even try. I improved over time. Then, in May 2018, I sent the following email (truncated for brevity) to everyone, and the firm’s culture further evolved:

“In general, we’ve got a GSD culture here at BMM. I like that we bounce ideas off each other. However, some of you are afraid to make decisions and take actions on things you know are good ideas out of fear of failure.

“I will hand out an envelope (with $1,000) to everyone after I send this e-mail. For the rest of 2018, I want you to try something I didn’t directly tell you to do. If it works out, great. We’ll talk about your success. We’ll celebrate it.

“If you fail, you keep the envelope. Nobody gets in trouble for trying to do something good that just doesn’t work out.”

Nobody tried to fail. Instead, people felt the freedom to try without fear of rebuke.

It’s not often that the top management asks the tough questions and points out operational risk. The C-suite typically sets the vision and then delegates the execution. The folks in the trenches are usually the ones who point out the difficulties. Not addressing employees’ concerns prevents them from having the emotional buy-in required to give the project their all, which creates its own hurdles.

As the leader of your company, it is your responsibility to change your firm’s culture from one that identifies problems to one that fixes them. You must foster an environment that simultaneously includes creativity and analytical thinking.

It’s not easy to get people thinking and speaking a certain way — you have to normalize new behaviors. To get there, you need to be disarming. People are afraid of making mistakes; you need to provide a safe space for your team to propose new ideas.

Businesses have scrambled to adapt to temporary and permanent changes due to COVID-19. Vanessa, who owns a Florence-based advertising company, recognized these shifts.

Her company’s revenue came from billboard design and selling ad space. Automobile mobility has picked up recently, but a year ago, fewer drivers were looking at billboards. Concurrently, there was a trend toward digital ads.

Vanessa instructed her team to make a move to digital but was met with resistance. She heard, “We tried that years ago, and it didn’t work — we should wait and see what happens.”

Vanessa validated her team’s feelings and thanked them for pointing out the risks. On the journey of trying to foster a culture of finding solutions over finding problems, you will encounter the speed bump of cynicism. Vanessa presented data about the shift to advertising dollars spent on digital to give credibility to what appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to losing clients.

Vanessa didn’t use the problems her team brought up as a reason to stop moving ahead. Instead, she used them as an opportunity to collaborate with her opposers to find solutions.

Vanessa applauded her detractors for helping find ways to become the ad agency of the future. She noted publicly that the input was so helpful; from now on, all criticism would be graciously embraced so long as the team worked together to find a solution. That type of social affirmation changes group behavior.

You must be clear about what you’re looking for. It’s crucial that you exemplify the culture you want. Acknowledge concerns but encourage solutions. Publicly reward successes to normalize the effort of finding solutions.

When you bring a new project to your team, tell them you are going to try a new approach. Start the discussion by listing the ideas and tactics needed to get the job done. If someone recognizes a problem in this initial meeting, they aren’t allowed to bring it up without presenting a solution. Listing all the challenges up front will diminish team buy-in and curtail productivity.

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on April 24, 2021.