I find myself asking them to explain the issue to me, and what they need me to help resolve. A startling proportion of the time, before they have finished explaining, and often before I have said another word, they stop, tell me the answer, and go away.
It is surprising how often just the act of explaining the problem out loud (as opposed to thinking about it with a spreadsheet in front of you) will help you understand the answer.
In fact, next time they need help, all they need to do is to imagine that there is a cardboard cutout of me standing next to them, and explain the problem to that cardboard cutout. Fortunately, perhaps, for me, it still usually needs my physical presence to make it happen.
As a phrase, I find it very helpful, as a way of reminding people how often they actually know the answer for themselves, just needing the right circumstances to bring it to the surface. And using the phrase cardboard management is an excellent reminder for me as a manager or mentor to listen, rather than interrupt with questions and suggestions too early in the explanation.
It’s become a phrase we use in our family as well, for when my children ask me for help with their homework; often they know the answer before they finish asking me for help.
So next time you are helping someone with a problem, ask yourself whether a bit more cardboard management is needed, and listen carefully before jumping in with the solution.