How to handle a problem

Problems fill our daily lives. Sometimes they’re trivial (“where are my keys?”), sometimes they’re pretty significant (“how do I hide this dead body?”); sometimes you can solve them on your own (“they were in my jacket pocket”), and sometimes you need help (“Mr. Wolf”).

How you approach a given problem shows not just your critical thinking process, but also a lot about your character. People will react in different ways to the same problems, even seemingly trivial ones. Some people try to solve problems on their own, while others will look to others to solve the problems.

In a busy work environment, problems are frequent. And I’ll argue that putting the solutions in the hands of a few people is a recipe for disaster.

A lot of people view problems as negative things, which is the wrong point of view. A problem is nothing more than a constant part of life. It’s how you approach the problem that matters — not just to yourself, but to others.

As a technical lead / manager, I have problems presented to me every minute of every day. It’s part of my job, and a part that I often like. I could try to solve each and every one of them, but the reality is that I’m often not the right person to do so. Why? I’m not a developer on a given project, and might not be aware of the technical situation. Or I might suggest something too difficult to be implemented. And frankly, the single biggest reason is that it’s a lost learning opportunity for someone else.

You need to learn from the problem. Otherwise, you’ll never really get any further ahead.

The way I see it, there’s four possible problem scenarios:

  1. You don’t understand the problem.
  2. You understand the problem, but are uanble to find a solution.
  3. You understand the problem, and have one possible solution.
  4. You understand the problem, have multiple possible solutions, but aren’t sure which is the most “correct”.

Each of these pose their own difficulties.

Not understand the problem can come down to something as simple as comprehension. It could also be a skills gap, or possible even a confidence issue. These are things that every person encounters — it’s the act of discovery, of education.

But even when you understand the problem, there’s no guarantee that you can work out a solution. (Just because you can see the leak in the garden hose doesn’t mean you can fix it.) This could be due any number of issues. It could also be due to having too many options, and no clear idea which is the “best” approach.

This is when your team lead comes in handy. (Managers, take note: you’re getting called out here.)

Managers generally have something you don’t have: experience. They’ve been around the block, they’ve deal with problems like this before, they’ve developed an ability to solve problems based on previous solutions. They’re usually good at understanding a situation, and because they see the bigger picture, can usually help you extract a best course of action when you’re confronted with multiple avenues.

However…

Don’t take this as an invitation to go to your lead everytime you have a problem (or even solutions).  When you to go your team lead for help, try to always have at least one solution (or one good candidate) in mind. This indicates to your lead that you’ve put some thought into that problem and have tried to find an answer.  Consider also the option of validation. Especially when you might not be wholly confident with a solution, your lead can help you ensure that the solution is solid (or at least solid  enough).

That doesn’t mean you have to be right — you could have something that’s simply unworkable, but your lead (assuming they’re competant) will be able to help steer you from disaster.

They key thing in all of this? Don’t be part of the problem. This is one of those few places where I will start looking at things more black-and-white. I want people to think, to fix things. Inability (or unwillingness) to fix things? That’s a problem.

Instead, everyone should try to be part of the solution. Everyone should try to figure out how to get past a hurdle. It doesn’t matter how junior or inexperienced you are — sometimes some of the best ideas come from those who aren’t bridled with the restraints of knowing a given system. Because they’re free to explore off-the-wall concepts, they might very well discover (or assist in discovering) a way out.

All it takes is a little thought.

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