Challenging Ideas in a Non-challenging Way

I do quite a bit of onboarding at Atomic and help people get settled into the company in their first couple of years. We look for smart, engaged, energetic folks. These Atoms frequently see areas for improvement and want to help move the company forward. Often though, they’re missing some context or don’t fully understand the implications of a proposed change. One of my least favorite things to do is to tell folks why their idea can’t work. It doesn’t feel like it builds the relationship or helps them develop their approach for the next opportunity they encounter. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to develop a better approach, but now, rather than be a voice of opposition to an idea, I try to ask questions to help folks work through the problem-solving process on their own.

When someone brings a suggestion these days, here are some of the questions I like to ask:

What root problem does this change solve for? What’s the real need driving this change?

I really like to lead with this one. Folks often present a perceived solution to a problem without taking the time to outline the problem itself. The presented solution may not be particularly feasible, but that doesn’t mean the person hasn’t identified a problem worth solving. And if they leave after getting a flat “no” to the proposed solution, they may think you’re not interested in helping. Understanding the root problem can lead to more empathy for the challenge they’re facing and spark ideas for alternate solutions.

Is there any hard data we can point to that substantiates the severity of the problem or the effectiveness of the solution?

We all have our perceptions. They’re not all the same. Conversations can be much more productive when it’s clear what we’re talking about and there’s something we can measure or agree on. Folks can sometimes skip this step, and so I like to ask, if only to highlight the value of having some hard data to drive the problem-solving conversation.

Who are the winners? And the losers?

Most changes for a group have pros and cons and will improve things for some folks while creating costs for others. This can be hard to see sometimes. We focus on how a change will improve our environment and sometimes assume that it will be equally positive for everyone. Since we all have our own priorities and preferences, there are often winners and losers. It can help broaden perspectives to think that through.

>What unintended consequences could this change cause?

In a similar vein, it can be easier to see the immediate benefit of a change for yourself or your team. We don’t always spend as much time thinking about what the unintended negative outcomes could be. I like to ask folks to spend some time exploring possible risks and may suggest a few myself.

Are there any other solutions that could capture the pros with fewer cons?

Hopefully, at this point, we all understand the problem and the constraints with a bit more depth than when we started. It’s often the case that new solutions have come to the surface by this stage that might be more actionable.

Can you build relationships through question-oriented problem solving?

It’s no fun to argue against someone’s big idea or to be the bad cop who’s shutting down change. It doesn’t feel like you’re building the relationship in the process or helping the other person learn to present ideas more effectively in the future. Perhaps questions like these can be a better way to drive the conversation if you find yourself in this situation.