Are You Problem Solving When You Should Try Problem Managing?

In our projects, we solve problems all the time. We might solve customer problems—how to make this feature work the right way. We might solve project problems—how to get to continuous integration or how to build enough and the right kind of test automation to make it easier to release. We even solve so-called people problems—how to provide feedback or coaching or change a team when people don’t interact well.

Our frame is problem-solving. We look for root causes and ways to solve this problem so it doesn’t reappear. We want this problem gone for good.

But is solving always the right answer?

Sometimes, our problems are temporary. Power outages are temporary. A weather event is temporary. We might even stop work on one project to do other work as a temporary problem.

We don’t identify root causes and fix them for temporary problems. We patch the problem and wait for the system to return to its status quo.

In that case, our frame is problem management.

I have a situation like that in my life right now. My husband had Achilles tendon surgery this week. He will not be able to put weight on that foot for the next month or so, and will gradually, over a four-month period, resume full weight-bearing and capability.

We need to manage this problem. We can’t solve it in the same sense as other problems we would want to solve.

When we manage problems, we find workarounds. We fix just enough to keep going. In my case, I have help for the next several weeks for the things around the house that I can’t do easily. We have found someone else to shovel snow in the event of a snowstorm. Yes, I have cooked in advance so I don’t have to cook a fresh dinner. A dinner out of the freezer will work, too.

This is not how we normally live. It’s fine for now.

With a problem-solving frame, we find the root cause of a problem, generate options, and experiment until we find a reasonable solution. We solve the problems.

With a problem-managing frame, we don’t bother searching for a root cause. We patch the problem because we don’t need to find a root cause and fix that.

For me, the interesting question is, which problem approach is right at the time? Problem management for a spouse’s surgery makes sense. It’s not always clear for other problems.

I have seen teams patch over problems in the build or test automation systems for years. That’s problem management, not problem solving. Often, the teams or managers didn’t want to know the root cause.

If you can identify the root cause but prefer not to, you might be problem-managing. If you can identify the root cause and don’t want to solve it, you are problem-escaping. If you can identify the root cause and solve it, that’s true problem-solving.

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