How do you solve a problem like problem-solving?

When a new employee started (let’s call them Cam), I transferred several of my responsibilities to them. Alas, some of them kept coming back and coming back again (through being asked to deal with some more difficult problems). Of course, I was ready to help out and all that. But it was also getting a tiny bit super annoying.

Yet, I thought there was little I could do. Yes, sure, I wished Cam showed more initiative to become independent (and maybe a different person would), but I also didn’t think that I could do anything about it. I transferred all the know-how about the task that I could. The rest seemed impossible.

when you dont like something

defaults are easy

I did understand why Cam wasn’t super eager to take initiative, though.

On the surface, it did look like solving those problems required some new knowledge that one likely rather naturally learns over time, getting more familiar with it. And partly, that is true. So, why not, in the meantime, exploit the option of someone else’s help (mine)? Because Cam was busy. We all were busy. It was easy to default to the easy solution and move on and leave ‘doing more about it’ for another day,

when you default to defaults

But there was also something Cam didn’t know. I don’t think I had ever said, ‘Huh, I’ll have to think about this’, or, ‘This is tricky.’ Anything, really, to suggest, I was not just pulling answers out of my sleeves. Because indeed, I wasn’t someone with some additional knowledge and ready-made answers. I was just, you know, problem-solving. Thinking about it. And then, somehow, figuring out the best way to proceed.

How was I to teach Cam that?

One does not simply teach problem-solving, right? It’s a learned skill, but learned over time, and, mostly, practice. In very obscure ways. I didn’t know how I learned that. I couldn’t just go there and say, ‘Ask yourself this question here, and then if that happens, you take the left turn, and you dig a bit deeper there, and turn around, and then you’ll have arrived at the Solution.’ It was all more in a realm of it depends. It depends on the problem, how much I know, how much information is missing, and so on. Super easy to teach that.

But then I realized I was also defaulting to what was easy. Maybe it wasn’t the easiest of skills to transfer, but I couldn’t know until I tried. And I had to try.

the dive into the black box

But to teach Cam how to fish, I first had to figure out how I did the fishing in the first place. Because, seriously, I had no idea. I had to consciously examine the process I went through. The thoughts that popped up in my mind. The solutions I played with. The paths I explored.

All that fun, indescribable stuff that seems to happen like magic. The stuff without a clear-cut guideline and exact steps to follow.

when you dont know how you do it

And this is also why I cannot exactly recap what I said and didn’t say to Cam. I didn’t take a generalized approach to problem-solving, instead, I showed the concept of problem-solving on a few more complicated examples when I got asked to help next time. Instead of doing things behind the curtain, I shared what questions I asked myself there, what I was thinking, what I went to seek out, and how and why I decided something was the best path forward. It was about a specific context and a few specific problems but it indicated some more general ‘how’s of it all.

what about the impact?

Looking back, it still feels like a whole lot of nothing. But you know what? It actually did help, even that tiny effort a couple of times (so in the end, the most difficult part was just figuring out how to go about it). I didn’t need to help out as often anymore. (And it wasn’t just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of situation. Or that Cam got an impression from me that I didn’t want to help so they retreated. I did keep an eye on it and I did see Cam did well. Actually, they also started doing better on other problems, the ones I usually wouldn’t even help out with.)

I’m not saying that I made a super profound change in Cam’s life and work from then on. There was some transfer of the approach to other similar problems, sure, but I cannot say that this generalizable skill would indeed end up being generalized. I do hope, though. (But I do wish that I reflected on this situation much sooner, because this way, I’d do more to achieve more.)

But still, there was at least some impact.

when your eally want a problem solved

And yes, the initial first push was indeed selfish, but in this case, it just motivated me to rethink the situation (the way I hadn’t before) to create something that I already believed was a good thing: for Cam (or any other employee) to be as little dependent on others as possible, when it comes to the tasks they are responsible for. It wasn’t just about getting myself rid of some unnecessary work, it was good for all the parties involved.

And if I didn’t just assume this was something unteachable, I could’ve done it much sooner. The point is, though, how easy it is to fall into this trap of thinking of something as unchangeable. Of course, I’m not delusional, not everything can be changed. Not everything is worth changing. But if it’s something you want to change it just might be worth thinking twice about it, that’s all.

You thought it could never be changed
And that’s just how things were arranged
If you thought enough
You would call the bluff
But you’re left annoyed and unchanged


March 25, 2021

Tags: Status quo, Deliberate action, Intentional, Change, Impact, Rethink, Leadership, Growth