A Problem to Solve or a Tension to Manage? (The right diagnosis informs the right response to conflict.)

Musing for:

A Problem to Solve or a Tension to Manage?

Early in my leadership career, I often pushed for solutions to issues that weren’t really problems.

To me, they sure felt like problems, because they had a negative impact on me and my team. But what I didn’t learn to recognize until later was that some issues were problems to be solved, while others were simply tensions that would require ongoing management.

A genuine problem that needs a solution will usually be tied to a failure to meet a broad company objective such as a minimum standard for profitability, quality, customer satisfaction, or employee retention.

Other issues often show up as conflicts between two competing values such as work/life balance, predictability vs. innovation, uniformity vs. customization, speed vs. cost vs. quality, rapid delivery vs. long-term sustainability, or early-adopter vs. mainstream markets.

With any of those tradeoffs, it’s easy to look at only one side and see a deficiency as a problem to be solved, when it is in fact a mere fraction of a broader tension to be manager.

The difference is that solving true problems often justifies change initiatives that are both significant and (when successful) permanent. In contrast, managing tension between two competing ideals is usually ongoing. The conflict is a normal condition of a healthy organization as long as neither side sees it as a problem to be solved. The leader who will effectively manage that tension will benefit from a collection of strategies and selecting from among them at different times to reflect current observations of a frequently changing reality.

All conflicts can be uncomfortable. But if you can avoid the trap of thinking that conflicts must be solved, you’ll open your mind to managing the tensions that keep your organization healthy.

And if you’d like a thinking partner to explore your current situation with you, let’s talk. Visit https://stevedwire.com/connect for a complimentary conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *