Management Myth 14: I Must Always Have a Solution to the Problem

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Managers Might Have Rules About Problems
Some managers have rules about problems. Some managers think they should be able to have an answer to every problem. I’m not sure why managers should feel that way. They can’t possibly have an answer to every problem. They haven’t read every book. They can’t remember every line of code they ever wrote. Even though they may not even have written the code or the test or the requirement, many managers feel as if they should have an answer.

Some managers don’t want people to bring them problems if their people are going to be emotional about the problem. They think, “What if Sally yells and screams? What if Bob cries?” Many of us are not comfortable with our employees’ human-ness at work. The first time someone cried in my office, I felt scared and uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do. I finally said, “I’m sorry you’re sad, and I don’t know what to do.” My employee replied, “Oh, that’s ok. I’ll be better in a minute or so.” I was lucky. But you might be scared of what your employee might say or do.

Some managers don’t want people to bring them problems if they can’t do something about it. It sure sounds like Janet has one of those wicked problems that requires very different thinking. If David is afraid that he’ll look like a jerk or a fool or he appears incompetent, that will prevent him from helping him solve the problem with Janet. Some of us feel inadequate or incompetent if we don't have a solution for every problem that comes through our door.

Rules About Problems Won’t Make The Problems Go Away
The problem is that our rules won’t make the problems go away. We have to become effective problem solvers even if we have these rules.

Here are some possible alternatives if you have these rules or others about problem solving:

1. Ask people to “Tell me about the problem.” Ask your staff to brief you on what they perceive as the problem. Sometimes, people become stuck having thinking about the problem for so long. As soon as they articulate it to someone else, they might think of several possibilities. Or, you might.

2. Ask people “What do you want to have happen?” Sometimes, people have too many possible solutions. Even if they can’t see a solution, they can sometimes see the result they want to achieve.

3. Ask people “What do you think we should do?” Sometimes your staff needs to know you value suggestions or recommendations.

4. Use the Rule of Three in your problem solving. One solution is a dilemma, two is a trap, and three breaks logjam thinking, causing ideas to flow forth.

5. Say to your team, “I don’t know what to do. Let’s brainstorm with other people. Who should we involve in a solution?”

Acknowledge Your Feelings
Your feelings about problems won’t make them go away. If you acknowledge your feelings, they might not be so overwhelming. Because of this, you might try a proactive approach to problem discovery, instead of avoiding the problems.

Look for problems early, when they tend to be smaller and easier to fix. Try changing your reaction from one of “don’t bring that to me” to “let’s get more information to go forward.”

While you don't have to know the answers, being an effective and competent manager means that you can facilitate a way to get to the answers.


 

 


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User Comments

1 comment
allen OLSON's picture
allen OLSON

Johanna:

As always you hit the nail on the head with your article. I have always been impressed with the way you take a common sense approach to management I only wish more managers practiced what you preach.

February 22, 2013 - 2:30pm

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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