Reframing Problems to Move Forward

The Problem With Ego

In one of my roles, I was a fixer. The organization was broken and needed to heal. I knew there were going to be problems, but I was confident I could solve those problems. Reality disabused me of those notions. As it so often does, the dysfunction ran throughout the entire company, not just the organization I was taking over. That dysfunction leaked into the organization, causing one catastrophe after another. Those challenges came on top of the typical challenges involved with healing a dysfunctional organization.

When the issues started coming, and one avenue after another was closed to me. In that unbelievably complex political environment, I made mistakes.  Those mistakes made certain situations worse. I began to lose focus and motivation. After a little while, events occurred elsewhere in the company that changed my role and put me in a situation where I couldn't accomplish my original mission.  I was hemmed in on all sides and blocked at every turn.  I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, that I wasn't a good leader, that the organization had hired the wrong person. I even questioned my worth as a human being. That may sound dramatic, but it's hard to separate failing in what you see as your mission and fundamental failures in life when you tie your self-worth to what you do.

That existential pain forced a period of deep introspection on me. I realized that the real problem I was facing was not the problems themselves. The root problem was in my worldview. The root problem was how I viewed my mission and how that view of the mission impacted my difficulties. In my mind, I had a particular set of goals that I was there to accomplish. Accomplishing those specific goals would have the emergent behavior of moving the organization in the right direction. Anything that blocked those specific goals blocked my ability to improve things and, therefore, my ability to do my job.

This view was precisely the wrong way to view the problem. My mission was to improve the organization. To improve the organization's ability to deliver quality software sustainably. No more, no less. There are an infinite number of ways to accomplish that mission. Even the mission itself is more of a continuum rather than a hard finish line. Nothing had blocked me from that mission. Only the goals that I had set for myself that I felt would accomplish that mission where blocked. My ego had gotten tied in a specific goal, and mixing of ego with the goal is the thing that caused all of my pain and made me less effective.

Perfect Is the Enemy of Good

There is an Italian proverb that Voltaire first quoted in the eighteenth century:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)

People mostly quote it now as 'Perfect is the enemy of good.' In my life as an engineer, I lived and died by this principal. Somehow, I had forgotten it when I took up the reins of management. It may have something to do with having a non-traditional path into management, it may have something to do with the fact that I am unreasonably stubborn at times, but I had to relearn it the hard way in the end.

Tangled woods
Photo Credit - Kevin Fitzgerald

In the beginning, there was one PERFECT THING that I had to accomplish to be successful. After my period of introspection, I realized there is no perfect thing, and I started looking at my mission differently.  The mission changed from an endpoint to a direction. The path that would move the organization forward needed to take into account 'terrain features', hills, valleys, mountains, rivers, and lakes.  Those terrain features where my Axes of Constraint. They were the things that dictated the lay of the path.

Axes of Constraint

Those Axes of Constraint are your current set of challenges.  The variables around those constraints change pretty often. Certain constraints tighten with time, others loosen. Things that where not possible yesterday may be possible tomorrow. Each problem that arises is simply a new constraint in that set of constraints. That set of constraints changes the path you have to walk to accomplish your mission.

A leader didn't deliver on their promise? It doesn't matter, it just changes the current Axes of Constraint, and you need to account for those changes. A leader has the power to remove a blocker easily but doesn't for some reason? It is just a change to the current Axes of Constraint that you need to solve. Do you have an unreliable peer that makes it harder for your organization to deliver? It is just a fact that you need to take into account.

This reframing means that nothing can block you from delivering on your primary mission. Problems can change the path you walk to accomplish your mission, they can constrain you, but they can't stop you. Reframing it this way also allows you to take your ego out of the equation and dispassionately look at the problem. That will enable you to change your goals without feeling like you have failed. It also allows you to be tenacious in accomplishing your real mission instead of getting blocked at a step on the way.

Review Your Current Axes of Constraint

You should review your Axes of Constraint continuously. However, the time to be intentional about understanding your current Axes of Constraint is when you have just had a punch in your gut. When some unexpected change causes your stomach to feel like it has just shot to the center of the earth, this is when you are most likely to be reactive and most likely to let your ego drive a decision. That makes it the perfect time to think about this new piece of data as a change in your current Axes of Constraint. Thinking about how the constraints have changed allows you to avoid letting your emotions cloud your judgment and think about the problem as a set of constraints that need to be solved, rather than thinking about how someone has behaved poorly, screwed you over, etc.

You shouldn't make any decisions at that point. Just write down your current Axes of Constraints and how they have changed. Come back to that list sometime later. Your primary goal at that moment is to derail your feelings before they get ramped up so you can deal with the problem. The ideas you have then are still valuable, but you need a little distance to make good decisions. Thinking through the current Axes of Constraint help you get that distance sooner rather than later.

Finally

In the world of management, problems are endemic. You have to be fluid and flexible in accomplishing your goals. If not, you are going to get stuck and not provide the leadership your organization needs.

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