About Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

Are You Running from Problems or Solving Them?

Back when I was a manager inside organizations, I had many days that looked like this:

  • Meetings at 9am, 10am, 11am.
  • Working meeting through lunch (noon-1pm)
  • Meetings at 1pm, 2pm, 3pm.

I finally got a chance to check my email at 4pm. That’s when I discovered the world had blown up earlier in the day! (This is before cell phones. Yes, there was a time before cell phones.)

 
I then ran around like a chicken with my head cut off until I left work at 5:30pm, because, yes, I had a family, and, yes, I had to leave at 5:30pm. I either made dinner or picked up children, depending on my agreement with Mark.

We did the family stuff until 8pm, and when the kids went to sleep, I went back to work.

No wonder I was exhausted. My decision-making sometimes suffered, too. No surprise there.

Luckily, I had some days that did not look like this. I could solve the problems I encountered. And, some of these meetings were problem-solving meetings.

However, I had jobs where my senior managers did not manage their project portfolios, and we had many crises du jour. My VP would try to catch me on the way to my next meeting, and attempt to get me to “commit” to when a patch would be available or when we would start, or finish a project.

I swear, one of my VP’s used to know when I went to the ladies’ room. He did yell at me through the door, just as in this management myth.

I finally put my foot down, and said I was no longer going to meetings that weren’t problem solving meetings. Have you read the chapter about meetings in Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management? I wrote it for project managers and for managers who run around like the proverbial chickens. I wrote Manage Your Project Portfolio for managers like me who had well-meaning senior managers who had trouble making decisions about which projects to do.

This management myth is something I see often in organizations. This one is the one where people are running around so often they don’t actually solve problems.

Many problems are a combination of several problems. You might have to separate the problems and attack them in sequence. But, you might have to see the whole first, because there might be delays. The overarching problem is this: if you don’t give yourself enough time as a problem solving team, you can’t tell what the problem is. If you can’t tell what the problem is, you can’t solve it.

Problem solving tends to go through the process of:

  • Problem definition: What do we think the problem is?
  • Problem discussion: Let’s get all the divergent ideas on the table. Brainstorm, whatever we need to do.
  • Select a solution: Converge on a solution, trying out the ideas, understanding the results of each potential solution
  • Determine an action plan, with dates and people’s names associated with each step

Your problem solving might vary from this a bit, but that’s the general idea.

If you never give yourself enough time to solve problems because you’re always running around, how can you solve problems? It’s a problem. (Like the recursion there?)

That’s this month’s management myth, I Can Concentrate on the Run. Maybe your myth is that you can concentrate in a 10-minute standup. Maybe your myth is that you can concentrate on your drive into work. You might be able to, for some problems. Complex management problems require more than one person to solve them. They require more than a few minutes thought.

How do you solve complex problems in your organization? Do the problems run around the organization for a while? Or, do you solve them?

 

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