One of the key ingredients to becoming a great team is learning to focus on solutions, not problems. Unfortunately, this is really hard and requires practice. As humans, our natural response is to do just the opposite. In this post, I will explore why this is so and share things you can do to help.

We tend to focus on problems

Over the years, I have trained teams to become great teams that build great software; I have coached product owners, managers and executives to adopt Scrum and move away from predictive thinking to empirical management. During my coaching work, I have consistently observed the natural tendency people have to focus on problems rather than solutions. If you take a moment to think about your own experiences, you might recall situations like these:

  • A meeting without a clear goal in which problems are discussed at length, even if that leads nowhere closer to a solution;
  • A Daily Scrum during which team members share the work they did, the technical difficulties they encountered, but fail to create a plan for the next 24 hours;
  • A one-on-one meeting in which a manager provides « feedback » to an employee, identifies weak spots and asks for improvements;
  • A code review session during which the reviewer describes what he does not like about his peer’s code.

It does not matter whether you are a CEO or a software developer, we all suffer from the same brain bugs. In order to become more efficient, whether as a team member or individual, you need to learn how to overcome them. To do so, it helps to understand what those brain bugs are and where they come from.

The brain tries to maximize rewards and minimize danger

Our brain has one overarching organizing principle:

It tries to maximize rewards and minimize danger.

It also registers negative emotions much stronger than positive ones. This phenomenon is known as the Negativity bias. Negativity bias is pretty easy to explain considering that our brain has evolved over thousand of years and that during most of that evolution period, surviving amongst predators was the only thing that mattered. Our brain has been optimized to react quickly and efficiently to threat responses, even though we do not always react the way we would like to.

Threat responses generate negative emotions. In his latest book, Your Brain At Work, David Rock explains that negative emotions put people in what he calls an away state. Away responses make people defensive and reduce their cognitive resources. It becomes harder for them to think clearly.

The brain is a prediction machine

Our brain is also a formidable prediction machine, as Jeff Hawkins describes in his book, On Intelligence. It is continuously trying to predict the outcome of future actions to make decisions. Considering this, you can understand why your brain hates uncertainty and actively seeks to reduce it. Uncertainty leads to the inability to make decisions. Too much uncertainty often results in being stuck in a decision process. The more complex the situation, thus the more uncertainty, the more your brain has to focus attention and process stimuli, an energy hungry process. Your brain hates to do that.

Uncertainty creates a threat response. So there is a natural biological response to reduce uncertainty.

The past has lots of certainty and the future has little

Unfortunately for us, the future has very little certainty. It is scary to the brain. This is why so many leaders look for definitive answers and have such a hard time with empirical management. They prefer to live in the illusion that predictive management can actually work.

On the other hand, the past is all about certainty. It is about facts, things that are known. It is much easier for the brain to talk about the past than make decisions about the future.

Consider now that solutions are generally untested, and thus uncertain. They live in the future. It takes effort for your brain to dampen down the threat response that comes with uncertainty. On the opposite, it is very easy to discuss problems, because they come from the past.

Some things you can try

Next time you end up in a meeting, pay attention to how people tend to talk about problems, rather than focus on solutions. Here are some things you can do to help people put the focus back on solutions:

  • Simplify the situation;
  • Consider the whole;
  • Minimize perceived threats;
  • Take a break.

Set clear and concise goals

You can simplify situations by stating clear and concise goals. To be helpful, a goal has to be stated using a simple language that is common to the team.

Simplifying the situation using a goal statement will help people generate insights (see The Eureka Effect) and move them toward solutions.

Consider the big picture

Consider the big picture (for the system thinkers out there, the system), rather than the details. Take a step back and then focus only on the parts of the system that are relevant to achieving your goal.

On that subject, have a look at that great talk from Eric Berlow: How complexity leads to simplicity.

Minimize threats

Be careful to minimize perceived threats. Remember that negative emotions are registered much stronger than positive ones.

You can minimize perceived threats by discussing the positive, rather than the negative. Discuss things that are working well, what’s good in what you are doing and engage in a dialogue about how you would like things to be.

Take a break

It is surprisingly easy to get stuck on a problem. This is known as the impasse phenomenon (The Eureka Effect).

Whenever you feel the group is stuck, take a break and do something light and interesting, to see if an answer emerges.