Tackling problems of mythic proportion
Back when I worked at Blendle, we introduced a new floater team with just two engineers. The idea was for them to work full time on helping the others—who were all building new features—be more effective. They’d clear away hurdles, big and small, for other engineers. Or they’d simplify the setup of a project, so the rest of the team would need less time to complete the work. In the first few weeks alone, we got rid of all kinds of stuff that had been getting in the way.
First, we took stock of the biggest complaints. A long list of suggestions emerged, including many that were relatively easy to implement. One of the first jobs we took on was fixed within the week. Here was something people had been frustrated with for months and months, when it turns out a step in the right direction didn’t take long at all.
It was a great feeling to get that resolved, but what a waste of energy all that time! There’s got to be a better way.
Taming persistent problems
We’ve all seen issues like that: Problems that management ignores or perhaps never even hears about. Problems that we run into week in and week out. Problems that have been around so long they’ve taken on mythic proportions, and now seem so vast that no one has time for them and no one dares take them on. Let’s zoom in on how people talk about these kinds of problems:
“My boss/manager/supervisor totally ignores the problem.” It’s easy to presume that others see what you see. But that’s often not the case. Posing a simple question at lunch (Does issue X take up loads of your time, too?) can help clarify matters, and can be the first step toward finding a solution. Keep in mind that everyone’s busy; you can’t presume someone else will act on your suggestion. At the same time: Don’t hesitate to bring it up again.
Of course your boss won’t be excited if you show up every day to report a problem. A monthly reminder to consider your suggestion is fine, however, and keeps your issue on the radar. Here are more of my pointers for getting your manager to work for you.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.” If that thing you run into every week is irritating enough to complain about, why not put your energy into a solution instead? No need to find an instant fix, but spend a little time figuring out where to start. If you had an hour to work on the problem, what would you do first?
“There’s no time for that.” No one’s 100% fully booked. Add up those last 15-minute chunks at the end of the day, or the time you spend catching up on social media, and you can easily find an hour a week during your official workday. Think what it could do for you if you make a habit of using those lost minutes to tackle the issues that frustrate you most.
“I’m all on my own.” You may simply need a little marketing: share your ideas more often with the people around you. And don’t forget to tell folks about the progress you’re making, little by little. You might find someone who’s willing to put a few of their own 15-minute chunks of time toward your plan.
It’s also a way to up your chances of getting some serious time reserved for your project. I’ve often had folks pitch me the ideas of their colleagues out of sheer enthusiasm. They presume I’ve already heard about it, but that’s not always the case.
“That problem’s too big or too entrenched.” Everything grows bigger in our heads. When we actually work on something, we start unraveling the problem bit by bit. What’s the very first step? Are there alternative paths? In my experience, there’s often a smart solution: one that may not solve the whole problem, but will fix part of it in a fraction of the time. Look for it.
Be on the lookout this week for things that frustrate you, get in your way, or bog you down—especially things that seem too big to fix.
Then use these pointers to cut the problem down to size.
Have a good week,