Before I talk about what I think a problem manager should be doing, we might start by summarizing what problem managers typically do. Of course, every problem manager performs differently a role that each organization defines differently. So, I can only make a list of some of the major responsibilities of problem managers. Rare are the problem managers who perform all these activities.
What problem managers do
Manage problem records
If an organization has a formal problem management discipline in place, it probably has a problem manager making records of problems and how they are being handled.
Act as a gateway
The formalism of problem management requires someone to identify problems and when the organization meets the entry and exit criteria for each phase of the problem management value stream. The problem manager generally plays this role, if anyone does.
Form resolution teams
Since problems often require multiple sets of expertise to resolve, an organization needs a means for identifying who can reasonably contribute to that work and for getting these people to contribute.
Chair progress meetings
Although some problem resolution teams might be self-organizing, many organizations have a culture requiring the presence of a formal meeting chair who calls meetings, fixes meeting agendas, conducts the meeting and often documents what was done and decided during the meeting.
Train problem resolvers
To the extent that an organization has a problem management process that it expects resolvers to follow, the problem manager might be the person who trains those resolvers. Sometimes, the training also includes the use of various problem management tools.
Coach problem resolvers
Due to the limited effectiveness of one-off training, the organization might find various follow-up activities useful to develop the maturity of problem resolution over the long term.
Interface with other process managers
Problem management has many close relationships with other disciplines, such as risk management, incident management, change management, inter alia. The managers of these disciplines exchange information, negotiate boundaries, agree on the handling of specific cases and many other little details of the interfaces.
Track problem status
Sometimes, problems just seem to disappear without anyone having done anything explicitly to resolve them. Of course, something did change, but the link of that change to the resolution of the problem was not recognized. So, a problem manager may periodically review the lists of open problems and determine if they still exist.
Create and distribute reports
Problem managers oversee the creation of periodic reports about the health and progress of their discipline, as well as analyses of the aggregated problems being handled.
What should problem managers do?
I wouldn’t ask this question unless I thought something were missing from the typical roles performed by problem managers. Most of the activities described above are non-value-adding activities. Problem resolvers—the people who figure out the causality of a problem and define what should be done to mitigate the problem—perform the real added value of problem management.
OK. A little bit of coordination does indeed help. However, many organizations have a culture that perpetuates control and coordination activities. Is problem management not as effective as you might like? Maybe you need more detailed processes, more training, more policies, more control. In short, more problem managers. A command and control approach to problem management thus dictates such behavior.
I would argue that a good measure of the success of the problem manager may be measured by the decreasing need for the role. There will always be problems. There will always be a need to handle them. But can we find a way to achieve the goals of problem management with less and less input from the problem manager?
Coach individuals in the formation of ad hoc teams
As an ad hoc team, a problem resolving group usually has a short life span. What percentage of that life span does the team spend in figuring out how to collaborate and what percentage does it spend in the value-adding work of resolving problems?
In my role as a problem manager, I have frequently seen cases where the strength of personalities in the resolving group determines its working approach. Some people make snap judgements about the causes of a problem and refuse to listen to the contributions of others. Other people have ideas about the problem, but are afraid of appearing foolish should their ideas not pan out. In any case, they might be unwilling to enter into conflict with their outspoken teammates.
In other cases, team members don’t know how to handle uncertainty. Many technicians either believe they know something (with 100% certainty) or they are simply unwilling to commit themselves. In other words, they see no useful ground between 100% sure and not knowing at all. And yet, that is precisely the ground where we almost always find ourselves.
Wouldn’t problem resolution be more efficient if the team’s storming and norming phases could be skipped? Shouldn’t it be possible for an ad hoc team to be performing from the start? I suggest that the problem manager should play a coaching role to develop teaming skills, encourage psychological safety, help people learn how to calibrate their levels of uncertainty and advise on appropriate levels of risk in the problem resolution activities.
Coach teams in self-organization methods
Often, existing organizational units have all the skills and authority required to handle a problem from end to end. In such cases, the presence of an external problem manager can be viewed as a form of external interference in the affairs of that organization. And yet, left to their own devices, such organizations often let problems fester until they provoke serious incidents.
Self-organization is the lowest overhead approach to resolving such problems. But teams often have hierarchical managers who dictate their activities and priorities. An organization will not likely transition spontaneously to a self-organizing culture. Thus, a problem manager/coach may usefully nudge organizations in a lower overhead direction.
But is this truly a role for a problem manager? In my view, the most fundamental problem of all—organizational units that perform ineffectively and inefficiently—is indeed matter for a problem manager/coach.
Coach leaders in low overhead methods to find consensus
Although many problems may be handled by existing teams, handling other problems may require a consortium of people from multiple organizational units.
Some organizations depend on formal methods to re-assign people temporarily to ad hoc tasks. These cumbersome methods impede the rapid and flexible resolution of problems. Often, teams do not share the same priorities or have conflicts between internal priorities and enterprise priorities. A classic example of reinforcing and rewarding such attitudes and behavior is the use of personal and team bonuses based on achieving personal and team objectives.
Again, such situations are unlikely to change spontaneously. Indeed, I have seen more frequently the reinforcement of the causes of the issues rather than a true improvement. Is the team’s work ineffective? Enforce better compliance with the process! Find a manager who better controls the team! Increase the frequency of audits! Add more validation and approval steps. And so forth.
Instead of such regressive, illogical behavior, a problem manager/coach could play a role in helping diverse teams find a consensus in priorities and develop low-overhead behavior to ensure that people are available to address problems. Organization members should move toward spontaneously volunteering to work on problems rather than waiting for a manager to formulate a request, which is submitted to a resource allocation board and approved by a top level manager with a budget.
Withering Away the Problem Manager Role
I promote a vision of problem managers becoming more like problem coaches. The problem coach’s role is to encourage a culture of behavior to rapidly and flexibly address problems with a minimum of overhead. The more successful the execution of this role, the more the organization becomes capable of spontaneously addressing problems as part of normal work. At the same time, the role of the problem coach becomes less and less needed. Ideally, the problem manager/coach role should tend to wither away.