Breaking the Cycle: Transforming Persistent Problems into Possibility

Why do some problems persist, often getting worse when we try to fix them?

Why do diets often fail, leaving people in worse health and more discourged?

Why does fighting to pay off technical debt sometimes create even more of it, and a discouraged team?

What’s going on?

What is a problem?

A problem is something that presents itself as something you want to be different, and as an obstacle preventing things from being the way you want them to be.

If my car is almost out of gas, I don’t have a problem until there’s something keeping me from putting gas in the car. It’s simply the situation that my car is almost out of gas.

“I need gas, but stopping for gas will make me late.”

What makes this a problem is simply the “but”. “But” creates the opposition between getting gas and being on time. It assumes that both of these things have to exist at the same time. Being on time and having gas must both co-exist.

It needs to be underlined that there is no obstacle to getting gas. You can get gas. Getting gas could make you late. But you can get gas.

Being on time (assuming you must take your own car) is also not directly connected to stopping for gas. It is connected to having gas in the car, but there are maybe other ways that could happen, such as remembering you have a 2 gallon can of gas for your lawnmower and that solves your problem. It’s also possible you have just enough to get there.

And the problem, really, is we don’t like that these things are features of reality.

If you were okay being late, for example, because it was a party you weren’t keen to get to, being late might be a benefit, and it even comes with a great excuse of “I forgot I needed to stop for gas”.

Something about problems is merely arising for us in our perceptions of situations. When we want something to be other than what it is and we see an obstacle, we have a problem.

Why Some Problems Are Hard To Remove

Some problems go away easily. If you found the above mentioned gas can, you suddenly have no problem. If you called and let them know you’ll be 5 minutes late, you have no problem.

But some problems even seem to resist being changed.

“Our team needs to pay off tech debt but we keep getting urgent requests” is such a problem.

We try to make an effort to get our tech debt paid off, but in comes another urgent request, and we have to pause again.

We try to carve out extra time, put in extra hours, but no matter what we do, the urgent requests keep pushing us off track.

We try talking to management to solve the problem of all these urgent requests. They’re really causing us some trouble.

We try adding in buffers and other prioritization queues to reduce urgent requests.

Nothing seems to work. There are still urgent requests keeping us from dealing with our tech debt.

As we lose the fight against urgent requests, we also give up on paying back our tech debt. It now seems like a battle that can’t be won, and our code deteriorates at an increasing pace as everyone gives up.

The Lie in Problems

The “but” in the above problem (“Our team needs to pay off tech debt but we keep getting urgent requests”) is what creates the opposition.

And as mentioned above in the gas example, there is not really an opposition there. And in this case, there’s even less opposition than in the example with the car that needs gas (where gas itself is maybe needed for the car to go).

It sounds like urgent requests are preventing us from paying off our tech debt. Because that’s what we have said.

But what if we simply said “Our team needs to pay off tech debt. We are getting a lot of urgent requests.”

Do those statements sound like problems?

Not really. They just sound like two aspects of the situation you’re in.

What if the problem is just the conditions of the game?

Urgent requests may just be the situation, the game you’re in.

Imagine an MLB player saying “I could hit home runs but these pitches are too hard to hit. We need slower pitches”. Ridiculous, right?

What if urgent requests is just the situation, and not something you need to fix in order to pay off tech debt?

What if you simply need to accept “urgent requests” and still pay off tech debt?

You then no longer need to solve “urgent requests”. It is no longer an obstacle, but rather just the condition of the game you’re playing.

This opens up some new options. It allows our focus to take in more of the landscape. We now have more space to generate opportunities because the focus is no longer on urgent requests. It’s up a level into a higher context, where we can think more creatively.

(And for the record, this truly is possible. I’ve been on teams on fire where we both paid off tech debt and put out the fire at the same time.)

When you’re fighting the problem, you’re keeping your attention on it. If I’m pushing something, I’m connected to it. It can move me around if I need to push it. Where it goes, I go. That’s where my energy is directed.

When you stop pushing, you can open up your thinking.

What’s possible in this situation, taken as a situation that does not necessarily need to change?

When we fight something in the situation, we stay stuck to it, because we are pushing on it.

When you just let it be, and then step back and ask “What do I want to do, given all this?” it opens up more room for possibility. It changes your goal, which allows you to see differently.

And that gives you possibilities.

Given your situation, what possibilities can you give yourself?

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