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The Three-Bucket Theory: Beyond just identifying problems

Jan 16, 2023
By: Tom Cox

As leaders, it can be amazing when a team is collaborative, full of positive energy and mutually focused on getting the right things accomplished. But sometimes in environments with a lot of openness and sharing, folks can be really great at identifying problems and issues, but not as skilled at owning the actual planning or work that it takes to get to the resolutions and outcomes.

Enter the Three-Bucket Theory. Simply put, there are three groups of people:

  1. Bucket one is great at identifying the problem.
  2. Bucket two can identify the problem and potential solutions.
  3. Bucket three can identify the problem, isolate a solution and then take appropriate action to drive change and outcomes.

The largest pool of people sit in bucket one and the smallest in the third bucket.

Is it possible to grow the size of bucket three? On one hand, it is the leader’s responsibility to create a collaborative environment that invites ideas and discussion. On the other hand, it’s also the leader’s responsibility to coach and mentor direct reports toward finding solutions, taking risks and enacting change.

That being said, it’s also the responsibility of the people you manage to work on growing bucket three. They must be willing to engage and take ownership for ideas and change.

That presents an interesting solution. We are all reporting to a leader in some context. In fact, even if we are the CEO, we generally have to answer to others.

Our ability to identify problems, create solutions and enact positive change are leadership traits. In our roles as those who follow leaders, we are most effective when applying these, demonstrating we can do these things and thereby take an active and positive role not just in the relationship, but in the actual work itself.

Imagine if everyone applied that attitude.

By taking on the leadership responsibility of bucket three, we can actively drive the collaborative and productive relationships and outcomes we all desire. Otherwise, we are unfortunately just making hollow noise in bucket one.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s leadership development programs help leaders at every level cultivate a leadership mindset that empowers others to thrive. Learn more about how we help clients with people, process and strategy on our organizational performance consulting web page or check out these additional articles:


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