The problem of the problem

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Some years ago I was managing a team at an internet TV pioneer. Shortly after a release our biggest customer – ITV – was on the phone complaining about a bug. Unfortunately one set of data fields were retaining their value when they should be wiped clear. It took a couple of months before we could include a fix in the release but we were confident we would make ITV happy.

A couple of hours after the fix went live ITV were on the phone. Why had we removed the daily cache? They weren’t just “working around” the bug, they were utilising it as a feature.

Sometimes it seems the problem you think you are dealing with isn’t the problem you are dealing with. Sometimes the way to solve a problem is not to fix the problem head on. Rather the solution comes from reframing the problem so that it is easier to solve. To put it another way: the problem you are trying to solve is knowing the problem you are trying to solve.

I sometimes think of this as “go and look at it from a different place”. Whatever you are looking at – problem, opportunity, objective, way of life – looks different if you go and stand somewhere else. The more different the place you stand in the more different the thing looks.

Clearly one way of solving a problem is to define it as not a problem: “it is not a bug, it is a feature.” As the story above shows, one person’s “bug” can be another person’s “feature.”

The question is then: is the reframing acceptable to others? – can others share the reframed perspective?

By way of example, lets apply this to agile.

A big part of agile is focus: small user stories, morning stand-ups and sprint planning all help create focus. Once you decide what you are going to tackle you focus on it, push other things out of the way and do it. And do it to completion.

You might call this “eating the elephant”: don’t eat it all at once, carve off a small piece, eat and repeat.

Pushed to either extreme this approach has bad side effects. Focus too tightly or too inflexibility and you might deliver a thing but not a thing which others recognise as a solution to the problem. But taking a view too broadly, or being very flexible, negates the way of working because you don’t deliver anything, – or the solution you deliver doesn’t please anyone (the “you can’t please all the people all the time” problem.)

Reframing can be a powerful technique but it can also work against you if other’s reframe the problem.

So, how do you know, or rather how do you frame and decide what your objective is?

Deciding what the problem is requires some imagination, it requires focus and flexibility – to stare at the problem but be flexible in how you see it. It also requires understanding and then the ability to communicate that understanding to others.

While I often hear people say “we should focus on the problem” I wish we could spend more time focusing on the problem of knowing what the problem is.

Reframing the problem is an inherently human thing. While machines may now, or in the near future, be able to solve many problems there is a problem of knowing what problem to present to the machine.

A big part of human work – often managerial work – is framing problems and deciding which to solve and which not to solve. Framing can make a small problem big, or a big problem small. That is inherently a human activity.

So, how do you know what problems to address? how do you know where to look for opportunities?

Now isn’t that a problem in itself? – surely we could set that up as an objective in its own right. Again it needs defining and framing and… So how does one decide to eat an elephant? And which elephant? And even, why eat an elephant at all?

It all becomes recursive. You can’t recurse for ever so hopefully sooner or later you need to come to the top – otherwise you have just reinvented paralysis by analysis. Detailed problem thinking needs to be combined with vaguer, even oblique, thinking.

To make this very real: I’m a big fan of metrics, they help focus, they help you know if you are going in the right direction. But I detest metrics too because they are a blunt instrument which can mislead so easily.

Metrics are great for focus but they need to be combined with a healthy dose of scepticism and oblique thinking. Metrics have limitations.

Sorry no solutions today. Just awareness of the problem of problems.


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