No Problems on Your Team? That’s a Big Problem.

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As a manager, it may feel good to think everything is just great on your team. Everyone is getting along. All the goals are on track.

But if you’re not aware of any issues on your team, it’s probably not because they aren’t there.

More likely, you just don’t know about them.

As the Japanese executive Taiichi Ohno, creator of the influential Toyota Production System, once said, “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”

No News Isn’t Good News

Most employees want to give you good news, even when the news isn’t so good. They don’t want to seem like troublemakers. They don’t want to rock the boat. And previous managers may have said things like, “Bring me solutions, not problems!” So it’s natural that they want to spin things for the positive.

But behind that positive spin, managers often miss a real chance to make a fix. Taking an avoidant, head-in-sand approach to management does nothing but forestall the consequences of problems you won’t find out about until later.

Rather than passively sitting back and waiting for people to raise issues, the effective manager proactively seeks out problems. They ask themselves regularly: “What am I not seeing? What uncomfortable truths might we not be talking about on this team?”

Few of us enjoy confronting these questions. When we suspect there’s an issue, it’s so easy to keep moving and hope the problem sorts itself out. Take it from me: it never does.

“Every Soldier Is a Sensor”

The good news is that if you learn to stop avoiding uncomfortable truths, you will find that your employees are a near-endless source of insights.

The effective manager must learn to mine this rich vein. It’s usually your employees, not you, who are in the best position to see an issue—they are, after all, closest to the work. But for all our talk of harnessing artificial intelligence in business, few managers do a consistent job of harnessing the human intelligence of their team members.

As is often the case, the military can teach the private sector a thing or two in this area. The US Army uses the phrase “every soldier is a sensor” to remind commanders of the importance of soldiers sharing their on-the-ground insight from the battlefield. Whether it’s the sighting of enemy aircraft or unusual movements of farm animals, these bits of human intelligence can make the difference between success or failure, between life and death, on the battlefield.

Some drill sergeants have been known to place sandbags under trainees’ bunks to see how long it takes the trainee to spot the abnormality and alert others to it. The message is clear: We need soldiers to be constantly vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

Reinforce the same value with your employees, pointing out that you need them to be your eyes and ears, always alert to threats and opportunities faced by the business.

For example, if one of your customer service reps keeps hearing the same concern from multiple customers, you may be able to vastly improve the company’s product or services by fully addressing that concern early in the process.

That’s precisely how managers should think about their employees: each is a valuable sensor, and the manager is the central processor who picks up their transmissions, processes them, and takes appropriate action.

And if those sensors are never going off? That’s a problem in itself. It’s your job as manager to encourage people to bring up problems.

It’s often the problems the manager learns about last that cause the greatest damage.

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel has learned the value of great managers over a quarter century serving as CEO of both public and private companies. As CEO and cofounder of NetQoS, a network management software firm, he delivered 31 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth and a $200 million valuation. In 2010, Joel cofounded Cache IQ, a storage software company that NetApp acquired two years later. He is the author of two books, The CEO Tightrope and The Manager’s Tightrope—a complete guide to the manager’s role. He currently serves as CEO of Khorus, a company he founded to provide a business management system for chief executives.

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