Here is the first of many true stories about managers. I plan to publish a different story each month, all taken from my paperback 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers.  If you don’t want to wait for each instalment, the solution is simple; buy the book!  Names of people and organisations have been changed to protect the innocent (and in some cases, the not so innocent).


Ian enjoyed a reputation as a trouble-shooter par excellence.  He had been recruited by head-hunters on behalf of a firm that had grown rapidly through a series of acquisitions and ill-advised mergers.  Ian’s brief, as the newly appointed CEO, was to sort out the mess and return the organisation to profitability – fast.  The board was impatient for results and so was Ian, who stood to gain a handsome performance-related bonus.

Ian set to work with his usual vigour.  There were many outward signs that he was bubbling with energy; for example, he jiggled his legs and frequently leapt up and paced around in meetings (no deep vein thrombosis for him!) and he was forever straightening pictures.  He also had the strange habit of striding along corridors clicking his fingers loudly.

His first action was to make it clear to his direct reports that he didn’t want them to bother him with problems, only with solutions.  In fact, he found it hard to accept that problems existed at all.  Many years ago he had been impressed by a management guru who had argued passionately (the way they do) that problems were best regarded as challenges. So, whereas you would normally think of a solution as the answer to a thing called a problem, Ian thought of solutions as the answers to challenges!

Ian’s direct reports, though, found it hard to adjust to this new approach.  The previous CEO had loved problems (so much so that, by the time he left under a cloud, he had succeeded in creating enough to bring the company to the brink of ruin). In fact, he had positively welcomed anyone who came to him with a problem and insisted it was added it to a long list of problems he captured on a white board in his office (he had curtains fitted that rendered the problems invisible when he received outside visitors!).  

Anyway, with this immediate past history, you can perhaps understand why Ian’s direct reports had some difficulty adapting to Ian’s ‘solutions only’ approach.  Whenever they lapsed into problem-stating behaviour, Ian would become extremely agitated and banish them until they could think of some solutions.  This they found hard to do, convinced in their hearts that problems not only existed, but that the ones they were grappling with were insoluble! 

So, increasingly, they kept clear of Ian, knowing that if they dared to broach problems (particularly insoluble ones!) they would incur his wrath.

It didn’t take Ian long to realise that his direct reports were failing to deliver results and he became exceedingly frustrated about the lack of progress.  Naturally he remonstrated with them, explaining over and over the importance of proposing solutions.  ‘That’s what you’re paid for – to spot challenges and produce SOLUTIONS!’  But it was to no avail.  The more Ian fretted, the more his direct reports took fright and suffered from solution paralysis.

Eventually, Ian called a crisis meeting and demanded an explanation. ‘What’s the problem?’ he shrieked, slamming his fist down on the table.  But his direct reports, flabbergasted to hear Ian using the P word, couldn’t bring themselves to tell him that he was the problem.

What advice would you offer to Ian and his collegues?

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