Five Ways to Cultivate Innovation and Problem Solving 

You have to nurture your employees to speak up
by Karin Hurt and David Dye 

Automation is a great way to drive costs out of operating a business and free up time for the humans to do what humans do best: think strategically and solve problems. But it’s not possible to just flip a switch and turn on the problem-solving gene in employees who’ve never been asked to think critically before or, worse, have been discouraged from speaking up. 

Here are five practical ways for business owners to build a more innovative, problem-solving culture at every level of their business.

1. Stop Being the Hero

There’s a certain rush that comes from jumping in and doing what must be done at exactly the right time. It might feel good, but it’s the easiest way to sabotage long-term success. 

If you solve problems for your team instead of with your team, you teach them to stop thinking.

A better approach is to take time to slow down just enough, even during times of crisis, to bring others along and help them rise to the occasion.

Don’t be a hero, be a hero farmer.

2. Ask Nine ‘Whats’

When they don’t know how to problem-solve, the management cliché of “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” means your team won’t bring you problems. Build the team’s problem-solving competencies with this simple 9 Whats Coaching Model technique. 

When your team brings you a problem, encourage them to also identify potential solutions. Ask them the following questions:

  • What is your goal?
  • What have you tried?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn?
  • What else do you need?
  • What else might you try?
  • What do you think might happen if you tried option A? How about Option B?
  • What will you do now?

3. Expose Them to Messy Discussions.

It’s tempting to think we must have it all figured out before wasting our team’s time when raising new strategic issues or concerns. But if you’re really working to build leadership capacity, it’s also important to sometimes bring your folks in before you have a clue. Let them see you wrestle in the muck. Get their input, too. “We could do this … but there’s that and that to consider … and also the other thing.”

4. Hold “Bring a Friend” Staff Meetings.

An easy way to do No. 3, above, is through “Bring a Friend” staff meetings. Once in a while, invite your direct reports to bring one of their high-potential employees along to your staff meeting. Of course, avoid anything super-sensitive, but be as transparent as possible. 

They’ll gain new perspectives and learn how your team works through problems, and, as a bonus, you get some extra sets of eyes working on your most strategic issues. 

5. Own the U.G.L.Y.

Take time with your team to focus on the big-picture aspects of your business. You can start with asking these four strategic questions, and then involve them in prioritization and action planning. 

U — What are we Underestimating?

Competitive pressures? New technology? The opportunity that we “don’t have time for?

G —What’s got to Go?

What are we doing now that doesn’t make sense anymore? What processes are more habit than value? What meetings are wasting our time? What’s got to go for us to be remarkable?

L —Where are we Losing?

Where are we still under-performing despite our best efforts? Why? Who’s doing it better? How?

Y — Where are we missing the “Yes”?

What must we say “Yes” to in 2019? What new opportunities are calling for our attention? Where must we invest more deeply?

You’ll be amazed how quickly these four strategic questions will get to the heart of the biggest issues and opportunities facing your team. 

There’s no faster way to build your team’s capacity than to help them think critically and solve problems on their own. Try a few of these techniques and watch your team accomplish more than you thought possible.  

Karin Hurt and David Dye, founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, help leaders achieve breakthrough results while building healthy relationships for lasting influence and impact. They are International keynote speakers, expert trainers, and the award-winning authors of four books, including Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul,

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