Bring Me a Problem (Solution Optional)

April 29, 2009

In what is becoming a consistently provocative column for us, the NY Times recently featured Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson as part of its Saturday Corner Office series. Anderson came across as thoughtful, humble, and hopefully up for the task of saving that airline.  Buried deep in the article, however, was a brief statement that worried me.  It was his variation on the theme of “don’t bring me a problem without a solution,'” or in Anderson’s words:

…don’t bring a Rubik’s cube to the table, unless you have an idea on how you’re going to try to get an answer.

Like many other well-intentioned managers, Anderson is getting this one wrong. Finding problems can be a solo sport, but solving the ones that matter usually requires a team effort.  And if we limit the problems that get exposed to the organization to those the observer can handle alone, then we also seriously limit the organization’s opportunities to improve.

As soon as problems are seen as critical inputs to improvement — critical because they reveal the operational path to better performance — then improvement champions will realize that surfacing problems is among their most important jobs.  And they might end their insidiously damaging habit of requiring problems and solutions to be colocated.  Anderson will have a much better shot at saving Delta if he gets unlimited access to what’s going wrong.

I was interviewed about this topic by the Harvard Management Update – the text of that interview can be found here.