When someone brings a problem to a leader, it is typical for the leader to begin asking questions. The intent of those questions can make a world of difference.
In what I would contend is the more typical case, the questions are diagnostic. The leader’s intent is to get more information so that he can then propose or direct a solution. I can certainly speak for myself that when I have knowledge in the domain it is really easy to just drop into this mode. Someone is asking for advice, and I naturally reflex to giving it.
Of course there are times when this is wholly appropriate. Think of a physician and a patient or an auto mechanic and a customer. The customer has a problem that they are not capable of fixing and is engaging an expert to fix it for them or at least tell them what they should do.
If the intent is to develop the expertise in people then the questions must be different. This isn’t about finding the answers, it is about teaching the questions. Here the leader is coaching. The questions are about helping the problem-solver find her threshold of knowledge and the next step to learn more.
In other words, rather than asking the diagnostic questions yourself (as the leader), it is about helping the learner determine what diagnostic questions she should be asking herself, and then going about finding the answers.
This is Harder and Takes Longer
In the short term, it is always easier to just give them the answers. We are all hard-wired to seek out affirmations of our competence. Equally, we are hard-wired to avoid situations that might call our competence into question. It is uncomfortable to be expected to know something we do not. This is part of being human. I would contend it is especially hard to resist showing what I know when I actually DO know (or think I do – though often I know a lot less than I assume).
It can also be frustrating for the learner, especially if they are used to just being told the answers. “Just tell me what to do” is a response that should clue you in to this frustration.
But if your intent is to develop the organization, you have to work a little harder.
Let’s Go See – and learn together
Even if I am asking diagnostic questions, I am likely to get to a point where I start hearing speculative answers or even a hard “I don’t know.” This is a great opportunity to shift gears from diagnostic to coaching with “Let’s go see so we can both understand what is going on.”
Now you can work together to help someone get deeper understanding of the current condition and the nature of the obstacles and problems being encountered. It is also a good opportunity to ask them to document what they are seeing in ways that help them explain it better.
This can take the form of a Toyota Kata storyboard, or an A3, or whatever other structure you are trying to teach and use for problem solving and improvement.
If done well, you will turn “What should I do?” into a learning and growth opportunity for everyone.