What is the problem you are trying to solve?

I had an interesting initial conversation with a couple of IT Directors this morning. One of their questions stood out for me: “Our teams aren’t meeting their commitments. What should we do to fix the teams?”

My first internal reaction was, “You don’t need to do a thing to ‘fix’ the teams.” My issue with questions of this ilk are:

  1. Why do managers assume the problem is with the team or teams? Remember, half-a-century ago, Deming pointed out that 95% of the problems are systemic problems. And guess who is responsible for the system?
  2. It’s easier to blame others than to take the time to reflect and introspect about how we ourselves are creating the conditions for these problems to come into being — problems we then keep complaining about.
  3. Why do managers (and team members as well) not spend a few minutes thinking about what the problem really is — the root cause and not just the manifestation — before leaping to conclusions?

In this case, there are numerous things that could be keeping the teams from meeting their commitments — lack of skills, lack of appropriate training, over specialization, silos, handoffs, interference from without within the sprint, pressure to commit to more than appropriate, changing priorities, lack of alignment with other groups these teams may be dependent on, technical debt, dearth of testers, large batches with little flow — stories being delivered towards the end of the sprint, large stories, unclear stories, unnecessary steps, non-value add activities imposed on the teams, delays and waiting, and so on and so forth. Without understanding what is actually causing the problem, it’s very likely that you’ll end up solving the wrong thing; thereby, creating even bigger problems.

I use a simple diagram to clarify the issue and teach techniques like 5 Whys, Diagram of Effects, ToC Thinking Tools (especially the CRT), etc. to help teams and managers understand problems and fix root causes so the problem goes away once and for all.

Analyzing a Problem
Analyzing a Problem

How do you handle such situations? Do you have favorite techniques and tools you use? And how much time do you spend teaching problem definition and problem solving techniques?

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