The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work
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People Can Fix (It) Themselves

– Step Back And Watch

If we do not let people do things the way they do, we will never know what they are really capable of and they will just follow our boarding school rules. – Ricardo Semler

The Gist

Problems and creative solutions are fundamental to any successful organization. It’s utopian to believe that a company without problems can exist. In fact, the presence of issues and concerns are actually hidden opportunities to review the status quo and reorient ourselves. As much as it’s important to identify problems and solve them, it’s equally important to think about the stakeholders involved. Who faces these issues? Who brings it to the attention of the management? And, who solves the problem?

In any company, it’s often the employees who first encounter an issue and bring it to the attention of their managers. And, it’s the management which “solves” these issues, albeit from an insulated position. When people who don’t struggle with the problems raised offer solutions to those problems, it’s most likely not  a complete solution. But conventional management leaves no room or time for employees to solve their own problems.

However, if managers and leaders took a step back and allowed their people to come up with solutions to the problems they raised, the story will be entirely different. Managers need to view themselves as facilitators first – they need to show their people that they are willing to trust them and wait until they can solve problems by themselves. Leaders need to rein themselves in and let employees take the lead.


Allowing people to creatively solve their own problems, by facilitating innovation and by being trusting, patient and transparent.


People are great problem solvers in a variety of situations in their personal lives and it’s common sense that they’d still have that capacity when they step into work too. However, to effectively solve problems, one needs access to all relevant information and traditional management makes that a near-impossibility. This is where transparency, or the lack thereof, makes a huge difference.

When people are given all the resources, time and facilitation to creatively solve their own professional problems, it makes them immensely confident in their own capacities. But most importantly, it improves their trust in the company and its leaders. That’s the secret ingredient to a highly motivated and engaged workforce.


Choose A Focus Group: Since not every employee can be actively engaged in finding solutions to problems they face as a collective, it’s a good idea to create a representative focus group. Make sure there is somebody representing every problem being faced by the workforce.

Mix Them Up: More often than not, solutions to problems are right in front of us. However, when we’re too close to the issue, things begin to get fuzzy. Bringing in new pairs of eyes are all that’s required sometimes. When a person, who’s never encountered a problem is asked to solve it, they bring in a fresh perspective which might have eluded those who face the problem everyday.

Patiently Facilitate: As a manager, it’s often tough to give up control and step back into a facilitating role. However, it’s crucial to take a backseat and allow people to fix their own issues. All you need to do is help them achieve solutions on their own. It may be easier, and probably even less time-consuming, to think of a solution yourself and implement it. But, it won’t really address the root cause of the problem, which will only resurface as something else later on.

When (NOT) to use it?

Since it’s fundamental to Semco Style that leaders play facilitating roles and treat adults as adults, we’d advocate to use this practice at every opportunity. But in order to do so, the company should also have a strong culture of honesty and transparency.

Level to implement



Be ready to disclose information

Be Patient

Encourage intermingling of employees


Dump your ideas and solutions on people

Disregard the problem-solving capacity of people

Withhold information relevant to solving an issue


Improves inter and intra learning amongst employees

Boosts trust and transparency

Improves morale and self-confidence of people



Reduced control for managers/ leaders

Disclosure of sensitive data if required


People Can Fix (It) Themselves: Help Them Do It

The bank I worked for was at a crossroads: The CEO and the employees had to make a choice – whether they were going to save their bank from bankruptcy or not. And they chose to save it because the employees had finally found someone at the top who was listening to their voices.

I was among the leaders who were trying to help the bank turnaround and the first thing we did was to split about 25-30 people from the bank’s 200 employees into five groups. Each team was given one problem to solve – problems raised by the employees themselves. We then gave them the coaching, freedom and the money needed to come up with solutions on their own. However these weren’t equal teams: They had people who knew all about the problem they had to solve as well as those who knew nothing about it.

For instance, if the problem was related to customer relations, then the team had people who handled customers upfront and those who were at the backend and never dealt directly with customers. We found that this kind of grouping not only helped the team members learn from each there, but also ushered in a new perspective, often from those who never encountered the problem in their routine work.  

Every team came up with solutions and were allowed to present them to the rest of the employees and managers at the bank. There was no pre-presentation censorship. And the fact that almost 90 percent of the plans and ideas presented were accepted just confirmed what we knew all along: If you trust your employees to come up with their own solutions to problems, instead of dumping your ideas on them, then they most likely will come out at the top with some of the best ideas and solutions.


Expert avatar

Van Noort, Karin

Semco Style Consultant – I help organizations to reach high results, happy & innovative employees and satisfied customers.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch, English

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