Problem to Solve or Tension to Manage?

Challenges take many forms in an organisational setting. Often tension occurs around various trade-offs we need to make. Perfect product, service or programme versus getting something out to market in time. Fluctuating workloads versus employing the right number of people.

This came up in a conference break-out session the other day. We were talking about the importance of doing less in organisations. Not more with less. Just less.

One group member had a common challenge. Allocating the time of a specialist across a few projects. Do we burn the person out, hire another specialist or reduce the number of projects?

These tensions can lead to conflict in teams at all levels. We see these trade-offs as problems that need solving. We’ve reduced complex challenges (lots of moving parts and competing ideas) to an either/or decision. When we apply a fix, a new problem pops up somewhere else. We end up creating win-lose situations in our teams that may cause relational damage.

Have you ever had one of those conversations where you can see good points on both sides?

We need a different way to think and talk about this. Re-frame the situation to bring the people on our teams together. One question can set the tone:

‘Is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?’

Complex challenges rarely have a straight forward answer. In different times and places different options may work better than others. A solution for the present may not work in the future.

By asking this question we take the pressure off people to take a side. We focus on getting the best out of the situation rather than getting rid of it.

How do we distinguish between something that is solvable and a tension to manage? I’m not suggesting that there aren’t actual problems to solve. Andy Stanley, leader and speaker, suggests these questions to make the distinction:

  1. Does this problem/tension keep resurfacing?
  2. Are there mature advocates on both sides?
  3. Are the two sides really interdependent?

So, how might we help my fellow conference attendee with their resource allocation challenge?

Acknowledge that some tensions are inevitable and ongoing. This takes the pressure off finding a permanent solution. In some cases, tension is useful to bring innovation and creativity.

Show commitment to the long-term relationship. Involve people in the decision making. Recognise their input even when you don’t go with their preferred course of action.

Find a unifying purpose for your team. What is your contribution to the organisation? What difference to you make? Who do you help? This serves as a reference point to guide decision making in the tension. The purpose can remain constant while you lean to either side of the tension.

And take the heat out of the situation by asking, “is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?”

Are you facing a challenge with many moving parts? Reach out to discuss how my work could assist you and your team in a complex situation

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.