Never Manage a Problem You can Solve

Never Manage a Problem You can Solve
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko / Unsplash

Solving a problem nobody cares about is usually a waste of your skills, abilities, attention, and time.

People will pay you very well to manage chronic problems they don't know how to solve. But if you're a creative thinker, problem solver, or someone who cares about outcomes and results, these opportunities will feel soul-crushing. You will lose your spark, gradually lose people's trust, and eventually burn out and leave (voluntarily or not).

People will pay you fairly well to do what they believe will solve their problem. But if they knew how to solve the problem, they wouldn't have a problem. What they're really doing is delegating accountability for their problem to you, making it your problem. In these situations, do not try to solve the problem. You will be punished for solving the problem because by solving it you will reveal that the problem was solvable, but the person who delegated it to you wasn't skilled or knowledgable enough to solve it. They were some combination of lazy, overwhelmed, and casual with the financial resources they were given.

Never manage a problem you can solve. And know that problems cannot be solved with action. They can only be managed with action.

Problems are only ever solved by changing the way people think. This is challenging and uncomfortable work. It requires accepting misperceptions, false beliefs, fears, and the inconvenience and relative discomfort of change.

Problems are never technical. All problems are people and relationship problems.

The difficulty of this work cannot be overstated. But it can be done. However, it can only be done with a certain amount of detachment from the culture in which the problem exists. It requires disruptions to existing relationships, norms, and expectations. I'd estimate that about 85% of people would avoid this kind of work about 85% of the time. So problems are rarely solved. This is exactly why problem solving is such a valuable skill.

Very few people are able, let alone motivated to do this work effectively. And even fewer are able to do so consistently. It simply requires more social and political capital than most people either have or are willing to invest. Everyone wants to belong.

Importantly, these projects cannot be led from the middle. They can only be led from the top. If you try to solve these problems from the middle you will become the problem and the organization will be more than happy to let you go, declare success, and revert right back to the status quo, problem and all.

Problems also cannot be solved alone. Leadership must care enough about the problem to change the culture they represent. This requires participation from people who focus on problems and solutions (innovators), people who focus on personal growth and development (early adopters), and people who care about relationships and influence (the early and late majority as well as the laggards).

Change is led by innovators, through early adopters, with the support of the majority.

The biggest obstructions to change are expectations and time. Change happens when people are ready. It does not happen on a schedule when you want to keep everyone on-board. If you want to change quickly, you will lose some people, which means you will lose some knowledge, skills, relationships, and trust. Accept this and be brave.

Losing some people doesn't mean you're failing as a leader. Losing people reveals their window of tolerance for change. We all have one. Some people have a wider window of tolerance than others. This is part of the human condition. Be compassionate, collaborative and pro-active and you will be leading well.

We all eventually accept that change is inevitable. We just want to be on the winning team. We all want to feel safe and we all want to belong.

Accept yourself and your experience of change. Accept the discomfort and inconvenience. Accept the awkwardness of the process. And accept that everyone around you is feeling something similar.

Above all, do not accept responsibility to manage a problem that you can solve. Having a job isn't what makes you valuable. You are valuable, period.

Make problems go away so you can focus on the next problem, and the next, and the next. Be compassionate, kind, and collaborative along the way and just keep on going.


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