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30s to better problem solving

How you frame a problem can make all the difference in how you solve it.

Let me illustrate so you can watch for this today at work.

The drama

I watched the other team work. Twelve people had 15 minutes to draw a map of the USA with the 50 states, and label the state capitals.

They couldn’t use the internet to look anything up. Everything had to be done from memory.

From the outside, it looked like chaos. The didn’t quite finish, but they got an impressive amount done.

Then it was our team’s turn; we had 15 minutes to create a poster listing the top ten attributes of technical leaders.

It felt like chaos for us too. Someone started writing on the poster, and others were yelling out ideas, someone else got a new poster to begin anew.

We almost finished, but not quite.

The key difference

During the debrief, the instructor pointed out a critical difference between the two problems.

The first problem had one right answer; it was objectively right or wrong.

The second had many right answers; it was utterly subjective.

The first group spent a lot of time agonizing over correctness.

The second group spent a lot of time agonizing over agreement.

Why the difference matters

When solving a problem we understand to be objective, we spend time looking for facts.

If people find different facts, then we might argue about which facts are “better”, because we’re trying to find The One Right Answer.

When solving a problem we understand to be subjective, we spend time trying to get agreement.

If two people disagree, then we discuss the meanings behind the disagreement and look for a resolution.

Both of these are fine… but things go south when we mistake one kind of problem for another.

If we perceive an objective problem as subjective (e.g. “2+2=?”) we might end up with an objectively wrong answer. This can have serious repercussions.

If we perceive a subjective problem as objective (e.g. “which web framework is best”?) we may end up fighting a religious war. This may lead to insults, pain, and other casualties of war.

Be alert today

I have a feeling you see both objective and subjective problems at work.

Does your team recognize the difference, and do they categorize them properly?

Today, keep your eye out for when people confuse these types of problems.

Then try gently pointing out the difference.

That simple nudge may make a significant impact on the team.

Give it a try, and see what happens.

If you’d like to learn to help your team build software with less drama, maybe my Software Leader Seminar is for you. It starts on May 20, and there are ten seats left. Learn more here:


About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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