A problem can be defined as the gap/difference between the things as desired and things as perceived.
For example, it is close to noon, and I perceive hunger or rumblings in my tummy. I can attempt to close the gap/difference by making myself a sandwich or a salad and then eating lunch. This would close the gap and solve my problem of feeling hungry.
Sometimes the problem is not the problem, but coping with the problem is the problem.
For instance, if I intend to avoid snacking at midnight and perceive hunger, here I have a different problem. I need a coping mechanism to overcome this perception of hunger. I may drink a glass of water or do nothing and let the feeling tide over. I will feel better in the morning that I avoid acting on my impulse.
There are three ways to overcome a problem.
- Remove the gap between the desired state and the current state
- Improve my capability to cope with the problem
- Dissolve the problem
The Rule of 3
Until you can define the problem in three different ways, you don’t really understand the problem.
– From Donald C. Gause and Gerald Weinberg’s excellent book Are your lights on?
This is sage advice because how you define your problem dictates how you attempt to solve it. Quick fixes are often attempted because the problem solver cannot look beyond the perceived gap and tries to resolve discrepancies immediately. This leads to solution-chasing behavior, where new fixes are attempted to close the gap, but the situation worsens because the underlying root cause is left unaddressed.
Never mistake a solution to be your problem, especially if it is your own solution. Too often, we are enamored by our solutions and consider these magic pills for all kinds of problems. Many managers make this mistake where they assume that they can push their favored techniques as solutions onto others. Acts of leadership, on the other hand, are empowering. Leaders enable people to take action on their terms.
Here’s how leaders can influence the problem-solving abilities of others.
Let’s follow Jasmine’s journey. Jasmine is a newly appointed Product Owner, but she is unfamiliar with Scrum. We are going to review four leadership stances and how they support her in taking action:
Teaching to Overcome a Knowledge Gap
When there is a knowledge gap, a teaching stance is appropriate. In teaching, the leader tells so the learners can increase their awareness. In the teaching stance, the teacher’s primary responsibility is to develop the learner’s curiosity for the subject. The teacher not only tells what the learner does not know but also engages the learner in critical thinking techniques applicable to the topic.
In Jasmine’s case, when she reaches out to know what a Product Owner in a Scrum team is, it is expected that you will tell her what the Product Owner’s accountabilities are. You will tell her about the ownership accountabilities of the Scrum team Product Backlog, the expectations that the product backlog is aligned with a singular product goal, and that it needs to be ordered so the developers can work on the highest-value items.
By teaching, you will have increased your learner’s awareness, and they may be able to put your teachings into practice in their Scrum team.
It suffices to say that teaching is more than just telling or reading PowerPoint slides. How you can help your learner connect with the topic reflects on your teaching skills.
Mentoring to Overcome a Skills Gap
When the person has awareness but cannot apply it in their context, then the leader mentors them so they can acquire new skills. This develops the potential talent that the person cannot express for now.
See me, then follow me, then lead me.
The leader can demonstrate applying a technique in the mentee’s context. The mentee first observes the mentor; then discusses the events to develop a deeper understanding of how the mentor used judgment in the situation. Over time the mentee develops the confidence to support the mentor actively and eventually takes complete control of the situation to practice acquired skills independently. This developmental approach is similar to an apprenticeship under a master craftsman. Initially, the leader is teaching – “wax on, wax off,” and then slowly, the apprentice is encouraged to problem solve by applying specific skills.
For example, Jasmine is now aware that her product backlog needs to be ordered. But she needs help with her stakeholder groups. So a leader as a mentor may facilitate the application of a technique, say MoSCoW (Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have), and then debrief with Jasmine. Then Jasmine will apply this technique under her mentor’s supervision to get specific feedback. Finally, she will develop the confidence to lead the MoSCoW method ordering of product backlog with her stakeholders.
Consulting to Overcome an Options Gap
When the person requests to explore alternatives to solving a problem, the leader shares their advice on possible ways to move forward. Here the leader uses their experience and judgment of the situation to expose trade-offs and recommends possible options.
For example, Jasmine is aware of her accountabilities as a Product Owner and has practiced the MoSCoW technique to align her stakeholders on priorities. She wants to further develop her competency by learning other ways to manage stakeholder expectations. Based on the awareness of Jasmine’s situation, the leader may advise her to try a technique like a story mapping or recommend she facilitate stakeholder retrospectives so they can build trust with each other first.
Effective consultants are trusted advisors. They expose trade-offs and offer insights that the other person considers in deciding the next steps. But they do not force their suggestions on others. As an advisor, the consulting leader acknowledges that the other person can choose to implement their advice or not.
Coaching to Overcome a Personal Growth Gap
When the person requests to grow their capability, the leader engages in a coaching relationship.
In teaching, mentoring, and consulting stances, the leader’s focus is the problem. Effective teachers, mentors, and consultants empathize with the other person, but their focus is the problem. And therefore, these stances emphasize learning new concepts, developing specific skills, and exploring options with the problem domain space.
In the coaching stance, the leader focuses on the person and not the problem. This is remarkably different. The emphasis on the person means that the coach supports the other person to develop self-awareness and their ability to set goals and generate their options.
The leader, when coaching, is concerned with the person’s growth and can look beyond the immediate problem or situation. The leader’s concern is developing the other person’s confidence in owning their growth journey, and they respect the journey and the pace that the other person can take. By focusing on the person, they maintain distance from the current problem and assist the other person in developing their competency in framing and solving their problem.
For example, our protagonist Jasmine needs more stakeholder engagement despite her best efforts. She knows what needs to be done and how it could be accomplished, and still, things need to be fixed for some reason. When she invites you for a coaching conversation, your focus will be on the person, not the problem. So you will help her explore her desired goal state and contribution to the current situation’s challenges. Guide her thinking to explore possible next steps and then encourage her to take the next step she owns.
The initiative may be new, with many open questions that the stakeholders are struggling with. Jasmine’s enthusiasm to get the product roadmap defined for the next six months is creating mistrust within stakeholders who are yet to find agreement from their departments. So after her coaching conversation, she decides to help struggling stakeholders facilitate product value discussions with their constituents or ease off on her use of pressure tactics. Whatever the next step is, it will be the one that Jasmine can implement independently and confidently.
Alistair Cockburn introduced the Shu-Ha-Ri as a way of thinking about how you learn a technique.
In brief, the three stages are:
Shu: The student follows the teachings precisely.
Ha: After the basic practices are secured, the student begins to branch out and develops an understanding of the principles and theory behind the technique.
Ri: The student is now learning from their practice to create their approaches and adapt the technique to their circumstances.
This article looks at the problem from the vantage point of appropriate leadership action. People are receptive to leadership support that matches their growth journey.
People need teaching and mentoring in their Shu stage, mentoring and consulting in the Ha stage, and coaching in the Ri stage. The key message is that leaders must recognize when teaching, mentoring, and consulting are better alternatives to coaching.
Take advantage of the fantastic infographic above that summarizes the different leadership stances.