Management Myth 17: I Must Solve the Team’s Problem for Them


Solve Problems at the Level at Which They Were Created
If you want to empower people or teams, you want to make sure that the people with the problem solve the problem. If those people struggle with a problem for too long, then it’s time to ask if they need help. But one of the guidelines for managers is “Let the people with the problem solve the problem.”

This is tricky. Why? Because many people who become managers are excellent problem solvers in some domain—just not necessarily the management domain. When I became a manager, I had been an excellent problem solver in the project management domain. Maybe when you became a manager you had been an excellent problem solver in the development domain. Those domain problem-solving skills do not always translate into people management.

However, one of the ways managers can help is with problem-solving skills. Sometimes, teams or the people with the problem are so immersed in the problem that they have trouble seeing solutions.

Managers Can Help Unstick Problem Solving
Remember the Albert Einstein quote “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”? If people are stuck in the same thinking, that’s where a manager can help. Managers can help because they can “go meta” and see the situation from the outside. Managers are not the only people who can do this, but sometimes managers are ideally placed to be able to see the problems.

One of the ways I like to help people or teams get unstuck is to generate options using the Rule of Three: What are three potential reasonable options to solve this problem? One solution is a trap; two solutions is a dilemma; and three solutions opens up possibilities, breaks logjam thinking, and provides us choices.

Aside from the Rule of Three, managers can ask, “What would it look like if you did know how to solve this problem?” Yes, that’s a funny kind of question, but it sometimes works.

As a third option, ask, “What kind of help do you need from me?” It could be that the team has not thought of you as a resource for help. The team might need a facilitator. Or a whiteboard. Or a person to bounce ideas off. Or something else. You, the manager, might be just what the team needs.

Let the Team Solve Its Own Problems
It’s so tempting to get in the middle and inflict help on a team. After all, the manager has the organizational power to do so. But that doesn’t make it right.

Facilitate the team’s problem solving. Provide the team what it needs. And then stay out of the team’s way. Every time I have done this, the team has developed a much better solution than I had considered—every single time.

Managers do not have to solve a team’s problems. They can provide feedback, coaching, a meta-perspective, facilitation, or a problem-solving environment. But they rarely need to do so. Before you solve a problem for a team, ask yourself, “Am I doing this for me or for the team?” Then you’ll know what to do.



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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 and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website,, as well on

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