How to sell your solutions

Your boss delegated an important project to you. Flattered to be trusted with the assignment, you also have grave concerns because of other priorities and limited resources. What do you do?

  1. Smile insincerely as you mumble obscenities under your breath.
  2. Lament that your manager doesn’t have a clue about what it takes to do your job.
  3. Dive in, and hope for the best.
  4. Complain to your co-workers in the lunchroom.
  5. Implement Proactive Problem Solving -- a tried and true technique for selling your solutions to a problem affecting your sanity.

Please choose option E.

In the early 1940s the military developed the Completed Staff Work Doctrine, a seven-step theory to prevent rank-and-file personnel from burdening their chief by putting more work on his already busy desk. Stephen R. Covey devoted a chapter on CSW in his "Principle-Centered Leadership." In both cases, the doctrine was positioned to help managers be more effective delegators but left staff members feeling imposed. That’s why I developed Proactive Problem Solving, a four-step process based on CSW designed to sell your solution to a problem that’s driving you crazy.

Step 1: State a compelling problem or issue with potential impact

Before you can sell a solution to a problem, you need to convince your manager (or decision maker) there’s a problem worth solving. In 30 seconds or less, state the problem or issue with the impact its having on you, others and the organization. For example:

I need to discuss a potential issue with the new project I was assigned. The current timeline affects resources and schedules of two other important projects, and could potentially sacrifice the quality of the new project.

Step 2: Provide alternatives

Succinctly provide three alternative solutions with the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example:

After researching alternatives and discussing the issues with people involved with all three projects, I have three viable options. I need your input (insight, opinion, judgement, expertise) to determine the best course of action.

  1. We bring Abby in from the sales department to cover project management tasks two days a week until all three projects are completed. The advantage is that we can make the deadlines on the two current projects and be close on the new project without affecting their quality. The disadvantage is that the time required bringing Abby up to speed means pushing the new project back by two weeks, and there are costs associated, which I have outlined here.
  2. We stay on track for the two current projects and shift the timeline for the new project back one month. The advantage is that the two current projects will not be negatively affected and, from what I’ve learned, the month delay wouldn’t be too disruptive to other plans. The disadvantage is that moving the deadline would require getting approval from the leadership team.
  3. The team members for all three projects share resources and work overtime to get them done. The advantage is that everything would get accomplished. The disadvantage is that pushing people this hard over the next two to three months will impact the quality of the work. Burning them out means we’ll pay the price down the road, and, of course, covering the overtime costs, which I’ve estimated here.

Step 3: Present the alternative you recommend, with your rationale

Now, sell your solution. For example:

I recommend the second alternative because there are no additional costs or resources. We wouldn’t be risking people’s health or the quality of the projects. The stakeholders I spoke to think the implications for moving the current project back a month would be negligible and getting approval from the leadership team would not be a problem given your influence power.

Step 4: Ask for feedback and/or agreement for action

For example:

I am open to your feedback, insights, and ideas. I need your input before moving forward.

Why it works

Before you relegate Proactive Problem Solving to the status of “sounds good, but probably won’t work in the real world,” you should know there are good reasons for why it works.

  • The best person to solve a problem is the person with the problem. You probably know more about the issue than anyone else.
  • Presenting three alternatives proves you’ve done your due diligence and builds trust for your recommendation.
  • The four-step process provides your manager with choices, fosters a sense of collaboration and engenders a desire to be part of the solution.
  • If your recommendation is not agreed to, you benefit from learning information or implications you weren’t aware of before your presentation.
  • Being proactive at work relieves stress and improves your well-being beyond the workplace.

Sarah was a participant in one of my workshops. Several weeks later, she called to thank me. Her brother was about to quit an otherwise great job over an issue similar to the example described above. Sarah convinced her brother to try Proactive Problem Solving instead. Not only did he get what he needed for the project, but also a raise and promotion. Through the process, his manager realized how valuable Sarah’s brother was to the organization.

If you are frustrated that no one else is solving a problem affecting you or your performance, use Proactive Problem Solving. Or when you have an idea worth fighting for, sell your idea using the four steps in Proactive Problem Solving. Go beyond problem spotting to problem solving. Then, go beyond problem solving to selling your solution. You get what you need, but everyone benefits.


Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised "Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller "Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does." Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

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