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There are times when junior team members encounter a problem and then mail the team, asking "what should I do?".

I want to encourage my team-mates to do more individual thinking and produce a proposal, as opposed to throwing a question out for someone else to handle.

How can I reply to my team-mates mails in a positive way that encourages them to make a proposal. I considered replying with "What do you think the right course of action is?" but I'm concerned that sounds a bit condescending as I'm not their manager.

Update:

  1. I am not a manager. While I am senior team member, I don’t have the time to answer every question / problem. Otherwise I’d never get my work done.
  2. The team is physically together in the same building
  3. I see a bunch of feedback re junior team members needing guidance. While I understand that, I want to break the habit of questions with so little thought behind them. If the mail had a question with an idea or two (even if they’re bad ideas), that’d be way better.
  • What would happen if you didn’t respond at all? Sometimes the best way to encourage people to solve problems on their own is to allow them to think they are, in fact, on their own. – AffableAmbler Sep 28 at 2:47
  • @AffableAmbler That’s a fair point although some team members just send following up mails repeating the question. – Craig Sep 28 at 4:03
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    I discourage you to do that! You will end stepping from one sh@t into the other because you are full of problems that noone wants to adress any more. How are those with knowledge on the subject able to find a solution if they are not aware of the problem? Juniors' job is to ask "how to do that" - not "here I bring up a completely stupid idea to get help at all". Don*t ruin your company with this kind of ideas. – puck Sep 28 at 10:08
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    @AffableAmbler, doesn't matter if the OP is a manager or not. If peers are presenting problems to him, they're looking for guidance. He may not have "an obligation" but he's in the loop and should respond one way or another. It's part of the transitions that one needs to go through on the way to management. I get that some orgs expect managerial skills to form out of nowhere upon promotion, but actually, people who become successful managers take on responsibilities gradually well before they're given the title of "manager". That's what the OP needs to do. – teego1967 Sep 28 at 13:10
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    @teego1967 I find this argument a bit flawed. To me it implies, if one doesn't want to become a manager one shouldn't answer. ^^ It's part of the senior title to be involved in such decision making and organising help, totally independent from the path to manager or not. – Frank Hopkins Sep 30 at 3:07
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First of all, what not to do:

Don't go to your team members and announce: I don't want you to bring me problems, I want you to bring solutions.

Unfortunately, I have seen that from managers before and the effect it has is to give the impressions that you don't care and people might give up. Junior members are junior and often lack the experience to come up with their own solutions. You don't want to shut them down. "Don't bring me problems" is a good career advise you can give someone who is trying to get more responsibility in their job. It is a horrible thing to say to your reports, that rely on you to solve roadblocks they are stuck with.

What can you do?

  1. Take their problem serious and make sure you understand it well enough. If you don't spend enough time to understand why the problem reported is a problem to your team and what the impact to the team and company. With more junior I often find that problems that are raised have a low impact, a good manager would make them understand the rationale, why they are low impact or high impact. "Yes, the data isn't totally accurate, but it is only used for capacity planning, being 10% off doesn't matter." or "Yes, that is a big problem, we use the data for financial reporting and it has to be 100% accurate. Please let me know anything you find.". Junior engineers might not have that context, and it helps them knowing what issues are worth solving and which one can be ignored.

  2. If the a team member brings up a problem you think they should be able to solve themselves coach them through it, in a 1-on-1. The first time you delegate something it (in this case problem analysis) takes you more time than doing it yourself, so make sure that you have enough time to coach a team member through it. Use a 1-on-1 to ask them what they already did to investigate the issue, ask questions about the context and potential leads to a solution. Ask for potential next steps and make them commit to follow one.

  3. Remove any roadblocks and limiting beliefs that stop them from being proactive. There might be a lot of reasons why team members that already have the capability to solve a problem, might not do it in your current team. If they don't know the right person to reach out to for questions about specific technology introduce them to seniors that have the knowledge. If they believe every solution needs to come from you, tell them that the opposite is true. If team members feel that they don't have the time to investigate solutions, make "investigate problem X" an official task on the backlog.

  4. Encourage the team member to share the results with the team. If a team member successfully came up with a good (or good enough) solution, let them reply to their own email with a proposed solution and make sure it happens. This can serve as a good example for other team members.

  • I want to give two +1, one for "take serious" and one "understand it". I*m missing both in the OP ;-) – puck Sep 28 at 10:13
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    +1 I would add to the first point, that newcomers often waste time solving problems that are already solved. Therefore it's good to ask at the beginning, and it's okay to say "I didn't encounter that problem before, could you suggest a solution?". – Chris Sep 29 at 16:49
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When working to change behaviors, I really like thinking about the influence model. There's research that supports the importance of each of the four activities you should pursue:

  1. Role modeling: Are you diligent in taking a solution-focused approach to your discussions with your team members? Do team members see you raising solutions to other teams and your own manager?
  2. Building conviction: Do your team members understand why it's important to raise solutions? Do you frequently share stories to illustrate the value of solutions over problems?
  3. Aligning formal mechanisms: Are there known rewards for solution-raisers? Are there consequences for issue-raisers?
  4. Capability building: Do your team members have the capabilities to develop solutions independently? Have you spent time with team members who frequently raise issues to help them develop critical and creative thinking skills?
1

Here are some tips from a person who was on both sides, asking and receiveing the same question:

  • firstly help them but not straigt away answering, but instead hinting them in the right direction, and making them think for themselves

  • secondly, make sure you never criticize an idea, no matter how bad it is, otherwise they will be scared to make their own suggestions in the future, but constructive feedback is always helpful

  • when they get it done, even if you did most of the work, tell them something like "you didn't even need me for this, you did it alone anyway". It may not be completely true but small things like this help juniors build up their courage to think, propose and solve

Now with quite a bit of experiance, I think juniors just need more courage and confidence in their skills. Most of them are quite good and have already solutions thought out, but are afraid that they will be seen as incompetent if the solution is not good.

After a couple of these "sessions" with the juniors, they will just solve it themselves and come to brag how awsomely they fixed something instead of asking what to do.

-7

One of my managers sorted that issue in one meeting when he said “from now on you can only propose a problem if you accompany it with two possible solutions”...

Step change in behavior...

It worked. Others would then critique the solutions and offer others.

Our team won the quality award that year... With that manager...

Not all people who come to meetings contribute equally, some are pro-active, others less so. This link gives a run-down of 7 types - you may recognise some from your own meetings:

7 types of people at meetings

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    Plus, our QA process would break down completely. No, dear QA colleague, you are not allowed to report any problems with our application until you can propose at least two possibile solutions. – gnasher729 Sep 28 at 7:53
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    @gnasher729 Also would encourage people to sit on issues, rather than flag them early. Which can be devastating for certain kinds of business. – Gregory Currie Sep 28 at 8:08
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    That is like stating "You are only allowed to press the fire alarm, if you have a fire extinguisher with you." – Helena Sep 28 at 9:28
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    Does "I have a solution to problem X: we should fix this" count to allow someone report a problem? This sounds like manager's view. I told them to not report problems, only solutions. Guess what, we don't have problems any more. - But things are as they were before. Why simply not make a stupid game out of statements? – puck Sep 28 at 10:24
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    @SolarMike This approach can work in some situations. But generally I and probably many others too wonder how delaying a problem report until the reporter finds a solution (or even worse two...) is good for a company. You say it works - are you sure you have no potential improvements in your company that are simply not addressed because those who see the need don't know what to change and those who would know what to change don't see the need? To me this policy is a prime example to breed ostrichs. – puck Sep 28 at 15:09

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