Allison Rogers was frustrated. First of all, she was very tired. Charlie, her eight-year old had awakened at 2:30 am complaining of a stomach ache, and by 3:00 am he was throwing up. After a few trips to the bathroom, she had hoped that he would feel better, but no luck. By 6:00 am he was whimpering and seemed to have a fever and so, worried that he may be coming down with the flu, she drove over to the local hospital to see if she could find someone to help. The InstaCare facility didn’t open until 7:00 am and she didn’t want to wait for an hour so she went to the ER and asked how long it would be before someone could see Charlie. When she was told that it would be at least two hours, she gave up and went home. By the time she arrived, Charlie seemed to be better and, once back in bed, went to sleep.
Maria was supposed to arrive by 8:00 am, and so rather than try to send Charlie to school, Allison decided that he should stay home. She would check on him later from the office. Maria would be irritated because she was clear that taking care of Charlie when he was sick was not part of the arrangement she had agreed to. Her job, she would remind Allison when something came up, was cleaning, cooking and taking care of three-year old Annie and did not include Charlie. ”Sorry Maria, ” Allison thought to herself, anticipating what Maria would say, “but this is an emergency.”
When by 9:15, and still no sign of Maria, Allison was even more upset. “The bus service is no good,” Maria would say when she finally arrived and she was right. In order to get to Allison’s place by 8:00 am, Maria had to leave her home on the South Side before 6:00 and had to make two transfers. If the first bus was late she would miss her connection and would over an hour late. Allison had considered buying a used car for Maria but decided that she couldn’t manage the extra expense. When her divorce became final last year, she not only was awarded custody of the children, but also got the house, which was a blessing. The mortgage that came with it, however, was a burden. Now with only one income she was struggling to make ends meet. With the increased financial pressures, she had given up her plan to pay off the rest of her student loans from over 10 years ago.
Allison knew that in spite of all of the problems, Maria was a godsend. She could not imagine trying to manage everything without her. Most of the time she was cheerful and helpful and Annie seemed to like her. In fact, there were times when Annie seemed confused whether it was Maria or Annie who was her mother. The most difficult source of friction was Maria’s insistence that she had to leave by 5:30 in the afternoon in order to catch her bus to get home to her own family. Making it home by 5:30 was always a challenge for Allison. Why did crises have to happen at 4:30 in the afternoon? She knew that people criticized her for insisting on leaving by 5:00. Among the “unwritten rules” at Big Sky was “We stay as late as it takes to get it done!”
By 9:30 she was beside herself. Reluctantly she called Alice, her assistant, and told her to reschedule the 10:30 staff meeting to 2:30 in the afternoon. She hated to do it. There would be hell to pay when several of the team members got the word. Alice hated to be the one to deliver the bad news since she was the one who caught the flak.
As she waited for Maria to arrive, Allison skimmed the briefing papers she had brought home with her. When Maria arrived a few minutes later she shoved them into her briefcase unread. She was aware that she would be unprepared for the meeting, and would be breaking one of her own rules -”Everyone arrives at staff meetings prepared and ready to participate” – but she felt she had no choice.
The meeting started badly. Before she had time to sit down Fred, the Asst. VP for R & D, began with his first complaint – one of many to come thought Allison. ”Why are we always rescheduling staff meeting?” he said in a belligerent voice. “We all showed up on time, and now this!” Allison bristled when she heard “always,” clearly an exaggeration. But Fred had a point. There had been too many changes during the past couple of months.
Fred was a real pain. His constant complaining and criticizing was adding tension to an already difficult situation. Ever since Allison had been named COO at Big Sky Pharmaceuticals, a position that Fred believed should have been his, he had been a constant thorn in her side. Last October, three months after becoming COO, Allison decided that he had to go. She ran it past her boss Richard who agreed that it was a good idea and encouraged her to move on it, but since then she had waffled. The prospect of a painful and difficult confrontation with Fred seemed to more that she could handle just now.
After an hour they had made little progress on the agenda. They frequently got off track, and ended up in what seemed to Allison to be fruitless arguments about unimportant things. She felt powerless to know what to do about it. She would intervene to get things back on track but before long the members would be back sniping at each another and raising what seemed to be trivial issues. She kept glancing at her watch. If she was to make it home by 5:30 she would have to leave soon.
Alice knocked once, then opened the door and handed Allison a note. It was from Richard: “Allie, I need to see you ASAP. See if you can slip out of your meeting.” She was surprised to hear from Richard since during the past several weeks she had hardly seen him at all. She also knew that he not was asking but telling her to leave the meeting. “This is from Richard,” she told the staff. ”He wants to see me now. So I’m going to have to run. We’ll pick up where we left off next week.”
“You must be kidding,” said Lucy, the HR director. “We’ve got important decisions we have to make today. I can’t keep those five engineers in Taiwan dangling out there any longer. I need to start negotiations! We need to make this happen. Tell Richard to wait an hour at least.” Other people around table were nodding in agreement.
“No, I have to go now,” Allison said half-apologetically and left the room before anyone else could say anything. ”What a mess,” she thought as she made her way down the hall to Richard’s office.
She knocked at the door, heard, “Come in,” then entered the CEO’s office. Richard was on the phone and motioned her to a chair. Twenty minutes later, he was still talking, and she was fuming. “This goes beyond rudeness,” she thought, but was not really surprised.
“Why would Richard want to see me in such a hurry,” she wondered as she waited. ”It must be some sort of an emergency, something I don’t need right now.” During the past months no one had seen much of Richard. He had been spending most of his time in Washington, huddled with lawyers or testifying before Congressional committees. He was trying to manage a Justice Department lawsuit which charged Big Sky and several European companies with price fixing with their new class of diabetes drugs. Richard hadn’t had a staff meeting for over a month and important issues were piling up. He had called her from Washington two weeks ago to tell her that he would be back for her annual performance review, then called later the same day and cancelled.
Richard began in a patronizing voice: ”Allie, Allie,” and then he paused. It seemed to Allison that he had forgotten why he wanted to see her. “Well,” he said, then paused again. Clearly he was uncomfortable. Perhaps he had forgotten why he needed to call her out of her staff meeting. He began again: ”Well, it looks like there’s good news and bad news,” then paused again.
“Well, get on with it,” thought Allison but knew enough not to say anything.
“Well, last week a couple of your team members came in complaining about how you’re running things. They seemed quite unhappy. I wanted to hear it from your side.” He looked at his watch.
“There are a number of things we should talk about Richard, including of course, how I’m running things. How much time do we have?
“Unfortunately, not much,” said Richard. ”I have to be on a plane in an hour. I did want to pass on some of their concerns so you can fix them right away. For example, there are reports that you always leave early and won’t sign on to anything after 5:00 in the afternoon. That’s not a very good idea Allie since as you know we need to make sure that things get done on time around here. And then there are complaints about cancelled or rescheduled meetings. And they tell me that things are piling up.”
Allison had an almost uncontrollable urge to roll her eyes but resisted. Talk about irony! Richard gave no opportunity for her to respond. He glanced at a note card. ”Ah,” he said, “and I am especially anxious to hear that you have fixed the Fred problem. It’s past time that we sent him on his way.” “We?” she thought. He paused for a moment and looked up from his note card. ”You have fixed the Fred problem haven’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer, an annoying pattern from a boss who rarely listened to anyone.
“There are a couple more things: I’m going to need your budget projections for 2016 including the R & D expenditures we talked about a while back and I’m going to need them next week for the Board meeting. I know I told you last month that I wouldn’t need them until June, but the Board has moved things up. See if you can have them for me day after tomorrow when I get back from Washington so I can look them over. And, oh yes, I need you in Washington next week. It seems that the Justice Department lawyers want to depose you about the meetings you were involved in when we were planning the rollout of the new diabetes drug. They will want to hear our side of the story and you’re the one to tell it! What they are trying to call price fixing is nothing more than smart strategy and we need for them to see it that way.” Allison suddenly felt anxious. There were a number of details with the deal-making process withs the diabetes drug that worried her. Was Richard telling her she needed to lie about it? How could she find out what he expected from her?
Richard had already moved on. He glanced at his watch once more, and Allison thought the meeting was over. But no: ”Oh yes, what about the trip to Europe and the Far East that you planned when you took came aboard, the one you cancelled when you were in the middle of that messy divorce? You know, meet face-to-face with our people over there? It’s time for them get to know the person who’s in charge of our production facilities. As you know, we’ve got some serious problems over there that need your hands-on attention.” He pushed back from his desk. ”When you get your travel plans set send me a copy so I’ll know where you’re going to be.”
“Well,” he said standing up, “time to hit the road.”
“Wait,” said Allison. ”What’s the good news?”
“Huh?” said Richard.
She was only twenty minutes late when she drove into the driveway. Luckily, Maria seemed not to be too upset. Later, as she was getting dinner on the table, she suddenly remembered that she had a date with Rob at 8:00. ”Yikes” she said out loud, startling the children. “I’m not up to it. I’ll have to cancel again.” She called the sitter who complained, and so she promised to pay her anyway. Then she called Rob, who was not happy. ”Allie,” he said. “what are you doing to yourself? And to us? We have a great chance to build something special here – we both know it – but if we’re going to make it happen we’ve got to see each other once in while! What is this, the third or fourth date you’ve cancelled in the past couple of months?” She didn’t want to count. She didn’t even want to think about it. ”Don’t give up on me Rob,” she said. “Things are going to get better. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Later, as she was getting ready for bed, she made one last visit to Charlie’s room. He was asleep and from what she could tell, didn’t have a fever. Annie was asleep in her room. As she stood by Charlie’s bed, she realized that she wasn’t paying much attention to her children these days and it was a constant worry. Last week when she was putting Charlie to bed, he blurted out, “Mommy. I miss Daddy.” ”I miss him too, sweetheart,” she said, but didn’t mean it. Actually, except for the huge salary that he brought in every month, she was glad to be rid of him. What Charlie said next, though, cut to the quick: ”Mommy, when are you going to be a Mommy again?” She didn’t know what to say.
Before getting into bed, she set the alarm for 3:00 am. There was a video conference call to Europe and the Far East at 3:30, and she need some time go get awake. She did the math: It was now 10:30. If she was lucky, and didn’t get caught up in one of her worrying episodes, she could be asleep by 11:00. Four hours sleep before the alarm. Not enough, she thought. I’ll never make it through the day on four hours sleep. ”Maybe I could get back to sleep at 5:00 for a couple more hours.” She was not optimistic.
Sitting on the edge of her bed. Allison suddenly felt like weeping. ”This is not working,” she thought. “Things are out of control. This used to be exciting and fun. I felt on top of things. This was exactly what I wanted, what I left teaching for, what I got the MBA for. Now I feel like I’m sinking down into a swamp!”
Once again she began to replay her recurring fantasy: ”Maybe it’s time to give it up and take the children back to Wisconsin, move in with my parents, and go back to teaching the fifth grade again.” But deep down she knew she couldn’t do it. She could never live on a teacher’s salary, plus no one ever thought teachers were important people. And she enjoyed being important, having important things to be in charge of!
She came out of her reverie with a jolt. Now isn’t the time to think about the future, she said to herself. I just need to get through the next few days.
Then another thought: Maybe things will take care of themselves. She had heard rumors that Big Sky was in play and could be acquired by a larger company. ”I’ll be the first to go,” she thought. ”A new company wouldn’t want a young, unexperienced COO who’s still trying to figure things out. Maybe a healthy severance package would let me pay off some of my bills.”
Allison’s Problem Levels
As you can see, I have loaded Allison down with every problem imaginable, and done it for two reasons. First, even though the number and the complexity of the problems Allison is facing could be seen as excessive and exaggerated, there are people who will identify with her and who, at the end of a day spent grappling with one wicked problem after another, sit on the edge of their bed at night and wonder, “Is it all worth it?”
And second, Allison’s seemingly endless procession of problems is a deliberate attempt to make the concept of Problem Level clear. As I suggested earlier, there are at least seven levels at which problems occur and Allison is facing at least one serious problem at each level.
The crucial idea is that once problems that are defined as existing at one level or another, they become different kinds of problems and must be understood, defined, and dealt with differently.
All of us carry with us a set of personal problems: uncertainties, worries, fears, concerns, that we may or may not share with others. We are the “owners” of these problems and we are responsible for deciding what to do with them.
Allies “personal troubles” include the challenges of being a single parent with a demanding job, struggling with colleagues and associates, an incompetent boss, her own leadership issues with her team, worries about her career choice, financial pressures, fatigue, struggling with an organizational culture that offers little support to single parents, and on and on.
Interpersonal problems – problems in relationships with others – are problems that are defined as belonging to at least two people and often several more. If one person in the relationship does not see the situation as a problem or refuses to own it (“It’s your problem, Allie!”), then it is not an interpersonal problem but an intrapersonal one. To move forward with interpersonal problems, both parties must accept that there is a problem, – and eventually agree on what it is – or there is no reason to try and work on it. Having a problem with another person who refuses to agree that there is a problem is a particularly fruitless endeavor. It becomes a meta- problem: one person working to convince the other that there is a problem that they both need to work on.
Among Allison’s relationship problems are tensions with co-workers, with Maria, with Rob, her significant other, with her son, Charlie, and especially with her boss.
Team problems are those that affect the effectiveness of the team. It is inappropriate to define a problem between two members of a team as a team problem unless the problem is one that affects the team entire team.
From the information available, it seems clear that this team is dysfunctional: the scheduling of meetings; the way the meetings are conducted; Richard’s disregard of the team meeting; being influenced by Allison’s family obligations; are all symptoms of team problems. The most serious team problem may be a leadership one: Allison does not seem to have the time or the inclination to work at the continuing challenge of improving team effectiveness.
Organizational problems are those that affect the entire organization. Organizational problems cannot be addressed by the organization itself, but are the responsibility of the senior leadership group. In fact, managing successfully the key organizational problems is the most important work of senior management.
As management teams attempt to deal with organization problems, they are often plagued with team problems. Before an executive team can effectively work on organizational problems, it needs to drop down a level and work on their team problems first.
The organizational problems at Big Sky Pharma are legion, and include inadequate leadership, strategic decisions, cultural norms and unwritten rules, decision making, legal difficulties, the possibility of being acquired by another company, and on and on.
In Allison’s story, the existence of problems at societal, national, global levels is mentioned, mostly in passing, and include such issues are global competition, legal difficulties, adequate pay and recognition for teaching, student loans, community bus service, and so on.
Most of the time, national and global issues are abstractions.They affect our lives indirectly. For example, while most of us see the Congress in Washington as dysfunctional, we make it through the day without worrying about it. We have other things to do. We are aware of national and global problems: We read about them, get information about them on TV, and hear about them from others, but we are seldom moved to action. When asked, we may say that we are concerned about “The Equality Gap!” The Minimum Wage, Capital Punishment, Global Warming, and so on, but most of the time we find ourselves more deeply involved in our own personal, relationship and work issues.
Problems at the societal, national and global levels are political in nature, and any attempts to work them must also be political. The political processes that we have available are, most believe, deeply flawed, yet they are all that we have.
My interest here is with the intrapersonal, interpersonal, team, and organization levels where important work can be planned and implemented. I will leave a serious exploration of the national and global issues to others.
A Bottom Line
Problems exist at different levels, and when these levels are factored in, the result is the creation of different kinds of problems, as different from each other as newspapers are from textbooks. Both contain information, yet because they are different in structure, organization and purpose, they must be used differently. When seen through the prism of Levels, a problem is not a problem is not a problem. It is intrapersonal, relationship, team, organization, national or global problem.
Allison is confronted with potential problems ranging from her own personal concerns to national and global issues, and include relationship, team and organization problems as well. No one can tell Allison how to deal with her problems (though there are some who will gladly give her advice). She must decide at what level a specific concern can best be addressed, then decide what actions to take in order to address it. Her understanding and skill at doing this, together with her tenacity and determination to follow through, is her most important capability.
We are all like Allison. What is true for her is also true for us. Her abilities – and ours – to manage well the problems that exist at different levels is the single most important aspect in either succeeding or failing as a leader, a colleague, a parent, or a partner in a relationship.
Treating all problems as it they were alike is a fundamental mistake. When it comes to wicked problems there are few recipes to follow. But here is one: No matter how sincere our intentions or how energetic our efforts, coming at all problems with the same set of tools is a recipe for failure.