Do You Have a Gnarly Problem?

Do you have gnarly problems to solve? Gnarly problems have many causes and many effects.

Some causes can become effects, especially if there are delays in the situation. Sometimes there are time delays built-in. You can’t think about the problem as a straight line, in a linear fashion. The problems bounce off each other. They have a multiplicative effect.

Take an example of geographically distributed agile team. Some of these teams work quite well together. Some do not—not even after years of trying.

Here are some problems I’ve seen:

  • These teams have multiple managers: managers “here” and “there,” and both sets of managers feel as if it’s their job to give the team work. Yes, you and I both know it’s the Product Owner’s job to provide the team a backlog, but that doesn’t matter. These managers still assign work for the team, or what’s worse, individual team members. When managers do that, they make it difficult for team members to deliver completed work on time.
  • The team members can’t depend on each other to finish their work on time. That leads to lack of respect.
  • The team members don’t respect each other. Sometimes, this is because the team members don’t finish work on time. Sometimes, it’s because the team members have work outside of the project work because the managers assign more work.
  • Sometimes, the managers think they can yank team members off this project and onto another project.

When I explain via writing what happens, you can see the problems more clearly. You can see that when team members don’t complete their work on time and having managers assign work to team members or remove them from the project can cause multiple problems.

You might see these problems in a Five-Whys exercise. You might not.

What can you do about gnarly problems?

You need to recognize that in gnarly problems there could be several causes creating one effect. In turn, several effects might cause another effect.

  • You can graph a gnarly problem. You can show flows of information, and who connects to whom and how.
  • You can explain it in words. Sometimes, writing down what happens helps you think through the problem.
  • You can create a value stream flow image, showing the source of the information and the flow, and who the customers of that information and flow are. If you include the delays, that’s a value stream.

With a gnarly problem, you want to take a holistic view of the situation. If you see the problem linearly, you might miss significant clues for the problem reality.

As adaptable problem solvers, we want to see the problem. We want to consider multiple was to discover all the issues causing the problem. Then we can create solutions that allow us to experiment and see what would work.

That is the question of the week: Do you have a gnarly problem?

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