“Don’t $#!! on my Desk!”
That’s a great phrase that a reader recently sent when I asked for folks who’d learned a great career lesson. He said it was something his boss used to say to him, and it really opens up a significant career growth opportunity.
Here’s what it means:
A lot of us do our best to bring problems to our leaders’ attention. When something isn’t working right, when something could be more efficient, or when something needs a leader-level decision, we try to bring it to them. We bring it to them and lay it right in front of them, on their desk, and ask them to fix it.
In other words, we’ve brought them a problem. We’ve put $#!! On their desk.
(And yes, this is a problem, not an issue. I famously dislike missing the word issue. Magazines have issues. Coins and stamps have issues. Even people have issue, but that means babies, not problems. If something is a problem, call it a problem. Don’t try to “soften” your language and render it bereft of meaning.)
So what should we be doing instead?
Bringing solutions. It’s fine to bring problems to the boss, provided you also bring a workable, acceptable, and business-aligned solution. In other words, when you’re not putting more work on the boss’ desk, but instead taking work off the desk.
Ah, but those three criteria are the sticky bit, right?
Workable. Credible. Business-aligned.
Workable obviously means your solution needs to effectively solve the problem. Acceptable means that your solution needs to fit within the overall framework of the business. And business-aligned means your solution needs to connect itself to whatever is important to the business, and needs to drive toward the business’ goals.
I think a lot of us believe that we can create workable solutions, at the very least. But workable for whom? Just us?
Whether your organization follows it explicitly or not, devising solutions to problems is a great time to deploy Bain Capital’s RAPID framework. Seek out the people who are impacted by the problem you’re trying to solve, or who should have Input to a solution. Anyone who might be miffed about your solution, or who might get in your way, should have Input to it. That’s not always easy, and certainly not always fun, but it’s the grown-up, business professional thing to do.
Then you craft a Recommendation to the boss. But before you take it to them, you seek out the Agreement of the key stakeholders who’ll be impacted by your suggestion. Get them on board. Compromise where needed. Note their objections (and reasons) as part of your Recommendation, if you can’t obtain full Agreement. Then take that Recommendation to the boss for their Decision. And respect that decision, even if it doesn’t go your way: be willing to Perform whatever your boss Decides.
RAPID is a good way to ensure your solution isn’t causing downstream problems that you simply weren’t aware of. It’s a good way to create a solution that’s broadly acceptable and has a better chance of being adopted. It’s professional.
Now for the business-aligned bit.
Businesses have tons of different motivations, concerns, restrictions, and so on. Make sure you understand those, so that your recommendation can be as business-aligned as possible. Many business motivators aren’t obvious or common-sense; work with your boss to understand how your recommendation might or might not align with the business, and most of all to understand why.
For example, suppose you’ve come up with a way to improve your team’s output by a significant margin, just by adding one team member. The additional output will materially improve the company’s revenue—but the boss still says no. What you may not realize is that the company is particularly sensitive to operational expenses—OpEx—and wants to avoid headcount-creep at all costs. They might well prefer to miss out on the revenue than take on the additional OpEx. That’s a super-simplified example of course, but the point is that many businesses have a ton of less-than-obvious motivators that directly influence the solutions you can propose.
So: No $#!! on the boss’ desk. Send flowers instead. Or better yet, workable, acceptable, business-aligned solutions.