Management Myth 14: I Must Always Have a Solution to the Problem


Some managers have rules about problems. Some managers think they should be able to have an answer to every problem. While you don't have to know the answers, being an effective and competent manager means that you can facilitate a way to get to the answers.

Janet hesitated before going down the hall to David’s office. She turned around and sat back down and sighed. Steve stopped by her cubicle and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I have this problem and I need to ask David a question. I’m really stumped. But he’s going to tell me, ‘Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.’ Like that’s a helpful answer. Why would I go to him if I had a solution?”

Steve asked, “What have you done?”

“I made this matrix of potential solutions, see? I tried these combinations. None of them work. I tried these things. Nothing works. I asked Tranh for help. He’s stuck.”

“No, he’s stuck? He’s the expert!”

“I know. If he’s stuck and I’m stuck, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I’ve tried the Rule of Three. We really need help. David is the last one who worked on that code before he became a manager. It’s so darn clever, I don’t understand it.”

“Janet, this is serious. We need to address this problem. This could put the entire release in jeopardy.”

“You’re telling me? But David is going to give me some stupid remark about how it’s my problem now or how I shouldn’t bring him a problem without a solution, and then he’s going to blame me for his stupid code. If he wasn’t so set on being clever back when he was a developer, maybe I could understand his code. But he didn’t write any tests. I’ve been writing unit tests, and I can’t get any of them to pass. This is all fubar.”

Steve thought for a minute. “Okay, we need to go meta on this.”

“Go meta?”

“Yes, the problem isn’t the problem. It’s your reaction to the problem.”

“Now it’s my reaction? You’re going to blame me for his code?” Janet was incredulous.

“Okay, hold on a minute,” Steve said. “You’re being reasonable. But you’re ready for David to be unhelpful, and you’re stressed and you need help, right?”


“You need help on this problem, right?”


“So, you’ve tried the standard operating procedure of writing unit tests, and they haven’t worked. You’ve tried experimenting six ways from Sunday and that hasn’t worked. You need other help, such as old-style reviews, right? And we don’t have time for that built into the iteration, right?”

“Yeah,” Janet said slowly, “I’m beginning to see what you mean. Start providing him some other options and then let him take it from there.”

Steve nodded. “Right. He’s not stupid or a jerk, but he is kind of defensive about his old code. And, you nailed it when you said he hates it when we don’t bring him some alternatives. So, let’s think of some.”

Janet smiled and said, “I’m really glad you stopped by.”

Managers Might Have Rules About Problems
Some managers have rules about problems. Some managers think they should be able to have an answer to every problem. I’m not sure why managers should feel that way. They can’t possibly have an answer to every problem. They haven’t read every book. They can’t remember every line of code they ever wrote. Even though they may not even have written the code or the test or the requirement, many managers feel as if they should have an answer.

Some managers don’t want people to bring them problems if their people are going to be emotional about the problem. They think, “What if Sally yells and screams? What if Bob cries?” Many of us are not comfortable with our employees’ human-ness at work. The first time someone cried in my office, I felt scared and uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do. I finally said, “I’m sorry you’re sad, and I don’t know what to do.” My employee replied, “Oh, that’s ok. I’ll be better in a minute or so.” I was lucky. But you might be scared of what your employee might say or do.

Some managers don’t want people to bring them problems if they can’t do something about it. It sure sounds like Janet has one of those wicked problems that requires very different thinking. If David is afraid that he’ll look like a jerk or a fool or he appears incompetent, that will prevent him from helping him solve the problem with Janet. Some of us feel inadequate or incompetent if we don't have a solution for every problem that comes through our door.

Rules About Problems Won’t Make The Problems Go Away
The problem is that our rules won’t make the problems go away. We have to become effective problem solvers even if we have these rules.

Here are some possible alternatives if you have these rules or others about problem solving:

1. Ask people to “Tell me about the problem.” Ask your staff to brief you on what they perceive as the problem. Sometimes, people become stuck having thinking about the problem for so long. As soon as they articulate it to someone else, they might think of several possibilities. Or, you might.

2. Ask people “What do you want to have happen?” Sometimes, people have too many possible solutions. Even if they can’t see a solution, they can sometimes see the result they want to achieve.

3. Ask people “What do you think we should do?” Sometimes your staff needs to know you value suggestions or recommendations.

4. Use the Rule of Three in your problem solving. One solution is a dilemma, two is a trap, and three breaks logjam thinking, causing ideas to flow forth.

5. Say to your team, “I don’t know what to do. Let’s brainstorm with other people. Who should we involve in a solution?”

Acknowledge Your Feelings
Your feelings about problems won’t make them go away. If you acknowledge your feelings, they might not be so overwhelming. Because of this, you might try a proactive approach to problem discovery, instead of avoiding the problems.

Look for problems early, when they tend to be smaller and easier to fix. Try changing your reaction from one of “don’t bring that to me” to “let’s get more information to go forward.”

While you don't have to know the answers, being an effective and competent manager means that you can facilitate a way to get to the answers.



Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

User Comments

1 comment
allen OLSON's picture
allen OLSON


As always you hit the nail on the head with your article. I have always been impressed with the way you take a common sense approach to management I only wish more managers practiced what you preach.

February 22, 2013 - 2:30pm

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