When Good Managers Fail: The Law of Problem Evolution

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 05-18-2005

When Good Managers Fail: The Law of Problem Evolution

Good managers always want to get better and improve on their past. This is a natural law—that is, one with very few exceptions—and it is as likely to bring down good managers as mediocre ones.

That's the Law of Problem Evolution. The law is this: The problems a manager faces will evolve over time to escape the solutions the manager has in her or his toolbox.

Of course, most operational problems—say the group being chronically late on deadlines or failures of packaged software to function as documented—don't actually conspire to elude a manager's solution.

Problem staff will sometimes change their behaviors to subvert a manager's attempted solution, but those are exceptions.

The Law of Problem Evolution is one of the reasons why new managers, even ones with less experience or even with less skill than their predecessors, can turn around a challenged group fairly quickly, even when the predecessor couldn't.

It's common sense that, as you stay on a job, the problems you naturally solve easily get solved, and the ones you're blind to or have a challenge solving tend to remain unsolved. Over time, the percentage of problems you find challenging will become an ever-larger proportion of the total remaining challenges, because the ones you just chew up are out of the scream pool.

If the manager's own supervisor is paying attention, it'll appear that things are "getting worse." If that supervisor is asleep at the wheel, they may not notice, but either way, limitations in the manager's abilities are silting up the flow of progress. Eventually even the good manager is "a problem," a barrier to improved performance.

One of my clients in the late '90s was a regional financial services concern that had always contracted its IT services through its hardware supplier. The company wanted to move to more diversified platforms.

They hired Herbert as their IT director, and Herbert was a wizard with equipment, a tireless warrior who put in dozens of hours of overtime most weeks. Herbert's strengths included strategic thinking about technology and the hands-on touch that looks like faith-healing to most executives.

He took joy in his department's ability to keep systems running and keep new gadgets and platforms rolling into the mix. He was passionate about building budgets, maintaining them and delivering results according to them.

Click here for a column on dealing with toxic managers.

Herbert, like all managers, had weaknesses. He was incapable of delegating. While his department was able to meet every service-level target and tended to meet deadlines, he never delegated the requirements to master specific tools.

When enough new systems came along and they were diverse enough, Herbert became a problem because his time was not limitless, and he was the only expert on four critical systems. You couldn't always get Herbert's attention, and there was no one else who had the expertise to unstick many sticky challenges.

Everything that Herbert could solve, he did. More and more of what appeared to be the problems at Herbert's company were challenges he was incapable of solving because he could not delegate. His excellent performance was limited in a way that devastated the excellence of what he was good at. The problem evolved in a way that no matter how hard he worked, he couldn't solve it.

Next Page: The manager who can't give negative feedback.

Negative Feedback

My associate Paul runs a region for a big international company. The core demographic for the company's main product is becoming less important every year, although the company aims to continue to grow. The logical way to do this is by selling the product to new demographic groups, thereby forcing them to promote and sell it in different ways, using different channels and tactics.

Caroline, the marketing director, has mastered the company's marketing model. She's a wizard at the direct-mail programs that have always been the foundation of its success. In her own people management, she knows how to give positive feedback and encouragement. What she doesn't ever do, and apparently can't, is give negative feedback.

When a contributor is not contributing what the organization needs, she doesn't give actionable instructions that would help direct a failing employee in a better direction.

The organization needs to completely remake its marketing approaches and execution over the next few years. The marketing staff deserve a chance to continue to work for the company, but they don't even know they are failing to properly implement the new models because Caroline is not capable of telling them. Her department is heading down a cul-de-sac, because by never correcting wasteful or erroneous behavior, staff members don't even realize they are falling short of what's needed.

Caroline is a really good manager in a dozen areas, but her limitation is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

The solution for Caroline and Herbert—and you and me and everyone else—is to be a chronic learner, to understand what's missing in our toolkits and try, even if it's unpleasant, to become adequate despite our limiting factors.

Hiring a replacement is among the most common approaches. The odds are slim that the next manager will have the exact weaknesses that the predecessor had. It's an expensive method, though, especially in purging an otherwise-successful manager.

And there are multiple ways to do it besides making a manager become good at what he or she isn't good at.

Paul hired a consultant who is a specialist in the new methods Caroline's department needs to master. The specialist shadows marketing staff and critiques them each for a few consecutive days, making the corrections Caroline doesn't want to make.

The company will get to the other side of this project with Caroline and staff intact and with its goals met, although it's a temporary solution.

The solution for Herbert's company, I believe, was to offer him a "guru without reports" job, where he could continue to do the wonderful things he did well and that added value to the company.

Then, they could bring in someone with more ability to manage a lifelong learning approach in a discipline that requires ongoing skills reinforcement.

If the manager is observant enough to realize her weak spot is a weak spot, I frequently recommend she asks other managers how they handle it.

A way to finesse loss of face is to ask staff members what they would do, and if the answer sounds feasible, help them implement it and share the glory if it works.

Almost all managers, even the best, have areas of relative weakness. And problems evolve to elude that manager's consistent strengths. The ideal is to keep growing as a manager using whatever tools and techniques you can to evolve more quickly than your challenges do.