Great news!  Reading this weekly blog feature with your favorite cup of coffee might actually be proving beneficial to your health.  At least the coffee part, that is.

In “Good News for Coffee Addicts” in the June, 2009 Harvard Business Review, Dr. Thomas Lee cites a number of long running studies that indicate that “drinking coffee cuts the risk of dying early from a heart attack or stroke.  Coffee also appears to offer some small protection against Type 2 diabetes, gallstones and Parkinson’s disease.” 

Dr. Lee offers up additional findings on coffee’s impact on productivity and emotions, with “Controlled laboratory experiments indicate that it (coffee) causes feelings of well-being and increases energy, alertness and motivation.”

That’s enough to convince me that it was serendipitous to name this weekly post, “Leadership Caffeine.”  It’s time to improve your feelings of well-being and jack up your productivity, so grab another cup of black coffee (the benefits wane with sugar and cream) and read on. 

Leaders and the Problems with Problems:

The best learning opportunities in the workplace occur when individuals or teams come face to face with a vexing problem.  These situations provide outstanding growth opportunities and a great chance to generate and implement innovative and creative solutions.  Of course, the manager has to play by the rules.

Unfortunately, there are still a few managers and leaders out there that insist on spoiling these ripe learning opportunities by requiring you to follow a specific approach or steps in solving a problem.  This is micromanaging primed.  A good micromanager (oxymoron by design!) focuses on what you are doing, but a great one takes it a step further and requires you to do it his way.  It is his way or the highway. 

This approach squelches any opportunities for creativity and personal development and reduces the health of the overall working environment to something that no amount of coffee could repair.

Some Sharp People Suffer from this Malady:

While you might read this and quickly scoff at the notion that you would ever dictate to people how to do things, it is more common than you might think.

I see this issue frequently in technical environments where brilliant architects and developers are promoted to lead teams and lacking the insight, experience or even mentoring from above; they proceed to define their job as “telling people how to develop.”  To these individuals, this is almost logical, since in their minds, they were promoted based on the strength of their technical acumen. 

Oh, and you sales pros are not immune either.  Similar circumstances.  Someone in their infinite wisdom promotes the top sales rep into a regional or district manager role with several more junior reps reporting to them, and the same process ensues.

8 Suggestions for Improving Your Support of Problem-Solving as a Leader:

1.  Under ordinary circumstances, you should not tell people how to solve a problem.  Work hard to avoid being prescriptive.  Of course, under extraordinary circumstances such as a life or death situation, this might not be possible.

2.  Do focus on framing a problem and ensuring that everyone understands the gravity of the issue and the goals of a solution.

3.  Don’t shoot down ideas and solutions that are different than what you would prescribe.  Instead ask questions, seek to understand how the approach will meet the goals.

4.  Challenge assumptions, not methods.

5.  Encourage individuals and groups to gain external input and/or to compare their proposed solutions to those already in place in the market.  For product, service or market problems, benchmarking against competitors can quickly uncover mundane, me-too solutions.

6.  Encourage individuals and teams to look in non-traditional places for ideas.  A famous example is how managers at Toyota studied the U.S. Supermarket industry to gain ideas on just-in-time inventory and production techniques.

7.  Screw up the courage to let people try things radically different than how you would have done it.  Provide support, and if failure occurs, see the next point.

8.  Recognize that failure is part of the path to getting it right.  Instead of prosecuting for failures, figure out how to leverage the experience for learning and improvement.

The Bottom-line for Now:

Seek to enculturate effective, collaborative and creative problem solving that does not involve you at the epicenter of every solution.  When problems start getting solved without your involvement, you are starting to succeed as a leader.