I have a problem as a leader: I’m a firefigher.
When someone comes to me with a problem, I want to put out their fire at that very instant for them. My first instinct is to offer solutions, remedies, and fixes. It’s a tendency and habit I’ve had my whole career (even before running my own business).
But that hasn’t helped me or the people on our team.
What it has done in the past is encourage people to come to me first, before attempting to solve their own problems first. (I went on a “Be the Solution” rant a while back because of it.)
But as the complexity of our business and team has increased, it’s only gotten worse. And consequently my firefighting instinct has caused me frustration as I attempt to put out numerous separate fires at once. (Imagine a week like this one when I’m trying to be out of the office next and all these fires pop up along with the ones I own.)
It’s chaotic. It’s also contrary to what I believe in …. empowering others to take initiative for themselves and their work.
In my experience handling support questions with our sister company iThemes, we would get a customer who emailed with an emergency 911-alarm-type support question, saying something like, “It’s not working. HELP!!!” When these emails happened overnight or we’re not in the office, I found that when they were forced to wait and attempt the answer for themselves, they typically … solved their own problem themselves.
What I found though is that if the emails were sent overnight, and didn’t receive an immediate response from us, that roughly 60% of the time, almost 30 minutes later, we’d get another follow-up email saying: “I fixed it.”
They forgot something trivial or found the issue themselves or our awesome support forum.
I equate that same example to our team. When a team member doesn’t have ready or instant access to others with the knowledge to answer questions and solve problems for them, they are forced to deal with the issue themselves. Some people will just quit on the solution until the appropriate people are available.
But that’s never a good or healthy scenario — for the business or that individual and their career with the company.
I know this … I can’t constantly solve problems for them. Sure, I want to teach and train. But the whole point of adding staff is to delegate tasks and roles.
It begs this type of question from the Bobs on Office Space:
The full scene though really hits this message home though.
If I’m the firefighter all the time, then they are simply the conveyor belt who brings those fires to me. And that’s not who I want to be as a leader and more importantly, the type of team members I want around me.
(I say this often to our staff … I want to create an environment of empowerment and learning, where each of you focus on your unique creative passions, skills and potential, in the right roles, for the benefit of all in our company.)
And trust me, you don’t want to be a Tom Smykowski. You want to consistently provide value to your organization, to your team and to your leaders.
So I’m thinking about implementing a 30-minute rule of problem solving. Here’s how it would go:
1. As a valued team member, know that you are empowered and expected to solve your own problems. You must first approach every problem as if you are the only person on our team capable of solving the problem. Your title is Chief Problem Solver. If you do not understand the values and philosophies of the company, then you should seek clarification from your managers at appropriate times (like during team meetings and retreats, but not every time a problem pops up). Ask questions at key times. And take notes. Otherwise, you are wasting everyone’s time. This is the definition of laziness. That’s a strong but important statement of the core issue. So I can’t and won’t sugarcoat it.
2. You must take a minimum of 30 minutes to solve the problem yourself, depending on the complexity of the problem. Own the solution!
3. During that 30 minutes, Google should be your best friend … the most powerful, robust search engine on the planet is a free treasure chest of answers and solutions … Let Me Google That For You is an awesome demonstration of how to use Google. Type in every keyword or phrase associated with the problem at hand. Remember: Search is free. The time you spend delegating problem solving to others costs money.
Also: A word of advice … if you take the initiative to research and own the solution on your own “time and dime” — which means at home, at night and on weekends … and come back with a polished solution, this is an investment in your career and can speed advancement and all the fun things that come along with it. You learn and grow through the process. You become self-managed, independent and more skilled at what you do. As a manager, I can tell you we love this. It means we can be free to do our work that ultimately helps everyone. And at night, when we’re solving our own problems, we can trust that you are doing the same for the work trusted to you.
4. If, at the end of 30 minutes, you have exhausted every problem solving ability you have at your disposal, including taking a break to think about the problem (sometimes you just have to step away to get separation), brainstorming every possible solution on paper or whiteboard, and Googling every keyword scenario possible (and even better — owning the solution on your own time!) … then you should consult someone. The first person to contact is a direct associate, and not necessarily your manager. If you can’t possibly find the solution, hit dead ends and have exhausted your own time and energy on the problem — then maybe you should consult your manager.
You obviously have to understand the cost versus benefit of every issue. Don’t make mountains out of molehills. There’s some reasonable discernment that comes along with this prescription for solving your own problems. You have to fit the above suggestions with each individual and unique situation, project deadlines, and the priority of the issue. Don’t waste your own time either!
And again, these suggestions aren’t fool-proof. But it should demonstrate one resounding theme: take initiative for your own problems and give your best to solve them yourself, before going to your preferred firefighter (who has his/her own issues to deal with).
Your boss will respect and trust you for it. And you’ll be proud of your hard-earned accomplishments on your road to career success.