Fix it Strategies – Top Down or Bottom Up?

leadership solutionsLast week there was an interesting article in the WSJ about Microsoft and some industry veterans offered up several “Fix it Strategies” for the company with Ballmer’s departure. There were definitely some interesting ideas and likely some that are spot on. However, it got me thinking about the evolution of a “fix it” strategy and whether it should come from the top? Or from the bottom? Or maybe both?

When I think about solving problems, I’m reminded of the Albert Einstein quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If that is where we start, how did Microsoft become such a slow innovator when they used to be at the cutting edge? My guess is they started dictating what people should produce and do while stifling creativity along the way. They’ve always had the “my way or the highway” attitude in their culture and now with more and more competition and creativity outside the company, they look and act like a dinosaur.

One aspect of Microsoft products is and has been annoying since the inception. It is the approach that consumers = testers and that customers will suffer through bug laden software and willingly report the errors. Consumers want products that work and they are more and more impatient when they don’t. Something innovative would be for Microsoft to address this core product philosophy moving forward. They might be surprised by the solutions their teams produce and they would certainly increase customer satisfaction.

Most of us aren’t at a Microsoft-size company. We are small entrepreneurial companies that have much more flexibility when it comes to solving problems. So which is the best approach for problem solving, top down or bottom up? My belief is that bottom up is probably better, but that doesn’t mean leadership isn’t involved. Leadership’s job is to point out the faulty thinking, or in some cases just outdated thinking, that created the problems in the first place. Let the team responsible hash out the solutions. You’ll be amazed what will come out of a new “brainstorming” if as a leader you direct it properly. Tell the team that there are “no boundaries” and mean it. The only rules for the thinking session are that there are no rules, no limits, no restrictions. If anything was possible and resources were plentiful, what would the team do?  

Teams do their best work when all solutions are possibilities and they don’t hear – “we can’t because…” Some of the solutions they come up with will be impossible to implement, but they may lead to others that are. The point is that it’s thinking differently to create a solution vs. thinking along the same lines as when the problem was created.

As leaders, it’s our job to help teams decide on the best approach based on circumstances, resources, etc. If we do that well, the team owns the solution vs. the leader riding in to save the day. A good leader helps their people see things differently – all the time.