Whose Problem Is It?

I remember reading an article, years ago, about how – I think it was in Northern Ireland or maybe it was Rwanda – someone determined that the only way to move forward was for everyone to agree that they owned 100% of solving the problem. Not 50/50. 100%

Too often, when we look at a situation that we are unhappy with, we see only what other people did that contributed to the problem. If only my child or my coworker or my parent or my spouse or my friend or a customer or that guy over there had done something different, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It is only when we both agree that we equally own our actions – that we take 100% responsibility for fixing the problem – that we can get to the next step.

I have been thinking about this in the context of management. Sometimes you end up with a situation where something breaks at work. Perhaps work isn’t progressing as quickly as it could; perhaps the team isn’t gelling. Perhaps communication is breaking down: one side thinks they are providing information that the other side isn’t acting on; and the information doesn’t make sense to the other side so they keep ignoring it or offering band-aid solutions like “just get it done.”

You could see this as an opportunity to “call the process” – to step back from the data itself and ask, “Why don’t we see this data the same way?” Instead, both sides fall prey to continuance bias, where you shrug your shoulders, say “it is what it is” and progress forward until the work crashes spectacularly.

As managers, as leaders, our role in this process is to remain objective. It’s important to build an open relationship of trust early with the people doing the work. That way, if we have to later ask “what is going wrong” we get an open answer. At the same time, it’s important that the manager not be involved in every meeting, in every stand-up, in every decision. As a manager you can’t, to use a medical analogy “bleed for the patient.” The manager’s job is not to push work forward and make sure it stays on track; it is to evaluate whether the work is staying on track, call out when it is not, and – if necessary – facilitate the problem-solving process.

To this end, there need to be check-ins throughout the process – some people call them gates – where the manager and the employee or team stop and look at the work together. I often liken this to a magic mirror. The manager acts as an objective mirror for the employee or the team, enabling the employee or team to compare their reflection to the success standards that were established, and determine where they are off track.

This continuous cycle of check-in’s is important because it prevents surprises. But it requires trust, the willingness to make yourself vulnerable. It requires team members to be vulnerable by sharing information with managers that they may not want to hear. Like, “I’m afraid we’re not going to make it.” Or “Our original estimates were off.” Or “I can’t figure out how to fix this problem.”

It requires the manager to make themselves vulnerable by being open to hearing things that they may not want to hear like, “Your precious timeline (or scope or budget) is at risk.”

How we all respond in that situation is critical to success. Often when we are faced by something that causes emotion, that emotion translates into energy. If that energy is directed outward, with force – rage, anger, fear, disappointment, finger-pointing, directing – it pushes people away from us, complicating problem-solving. When your energy is pointed outward, you are not taking 100% responsibility for solving the problem.

So, what do we do instead?

Obviously, it would be foolish to tell you not to feel your emotions. Negative emotions are there as warning signs to us: something is endangering us. It’s important to feel those emotions, to understand what they are warning us about. To evaluate whether they are appropriate in this situation or are leftovers from previous situations that don’t apply here. So, feel your emotions, just don’t pass them on to others.

What if, when employees tell us something that doesn’t make sense to us, we asked a question instead? What if we said, “Tell me more about that” or “Show me what you’re talking about.” Or “let’s look at the data together, help me understand.”

Saying these things will require time, something that managers often worry they don’t have enough of.

But, if we are accepting 100% responsibility for the problem, it is time we need to take.

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