What’s the Solvable Problem?

I had a difficult time seeing a site on my iPad. I grumbled about it to Mark. I said, “They must have changed the font.”

He replied, “Is your screen dirty?”

I took his advice and cleaned both my glasses and my iPad. It was better, but I still had trouble seeing the site. They had changed the font.

There are ways to increase the font size and I used them. I’m still perturbed, but I’ll live. Mark had correctly identified a common solvable problem in our house: my dirty glasses and/or dirty screens. However, that wasn’t the sole source of the problem. I had to increase the font size to see the site. It was a solvable problem.

We often have trouble understanding our solvable problems. Is the problem what we think is most apparent (the font changes here) or a possible underlying general problem (dirty glasses and screens)?

I see this kind of thing a lot in projects. One team struggled to meet a deadline. They didn’t.

They performed a retrospective. They realized their estimates were off. And, the team doesn’t delve deeper. It turns out:

  • Because the work was much larger than they anticipated, they “knew” they couldn’t finish by the time they wanted to.
  • They had unexpected additional support work. Because they “knew” they couldn’t finish, they resolved the support problems first.
  • And, half the team members got “called away” to help other people on other projects.

The apparent problem was their insufficient estimation. That might be a solvable problem. But, it’s much more likely the real problem was that the team didn’t act as a team to attack the work. Instead, they got distracted by other work because they couldn’t possibly finish their work.

The team has an estimation problem. The real, solvable problem, is that the team doesn’t collaborate on their work.

This is an example of seeing the system.

We work and live in systems. Our bodies are complex adaptive systems. With any luck, our work environments are, too. That means we need to look for the real problem, not the apparent problem.

I have an apparent problem—my vertigo. Even though I know the cause (the inner ear hemorrhage), I can’t fix that problem. I have to create workarounds, to fix the problems that arise from the original issue. That’s why I use a rollator and exercise to challenge my vertigo. I live with this problem.

Sometimes, we can fix the underlying problems. Sometimes we can’t. That means we need to see—and then fix—the solvable problem.

Here are some questions I like to consider to see and solve the underlying or solvable problems:

  • Does a symptom cause another problem? Many of us live and work in systems, as that team did. I sometimes draw a picture to see the contributing factors.
  • Use the “5 Whys” technique to discover and see the root cause(s).
  • Is there some sort of remedial action I can take to fix one thing, and then see what else occurs? That was the cleaning of my glasses and screen.

We can’t solve all the problems we encounter. We might need to solve an apparent problem first and then see what else we can do.

That’s the question this week: What’s the solvable problem?

3 thoughts on “What’s the Solvable Problem?

  1. sascha

    Thank you, Johanna, for these refreshing thoughts. It occurs to me, that often people see unsolvable problems and then stop thinking about solutions at all. They dismiss the problem or they focus on some symptoms. Your point here reminds me, that sometimes it perhaps is acceptable to solve symptoms instead of problems, if those are unsolvable… Any suggestions, how we can (quickly) decide, whether solving symptoms is appropriate in a certain situation?

    1. Johanna Post author

      Sascha, oh, good point about the stopping. I forgot about that. Thanks.

      I suspect I need to think more about the symptom-solving, but my general guidelines are these questions: Do I think this action will get me to a better place? Do I need to experiment or can I go for it? Sounds like I should write a post about interim problem-solving.

  2. Pingback: When Are You the "Only" One? - Create An Adaptable Life

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