When Good Managers Fail: The Law of Problem Evolution

Opinion: Problems evolve the same way managers do. Unfortunately, the longer a problem stays around, the less likely even a good manager is to solve them.

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.

Thats 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—dont actually conspire to elude a managers solution.

Problem staff will sometimes change their behaviors to subvert a managers 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 couldnt.

Its common sense that, as you stay on a job, the problems you naturally solve easily get solved, and the ones youre 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 managers own supervisor is paying attention, itll appear that things are "getting worse." If that supervisor is asleep at the wheel, they may not notice, but either way, limitations in the managers 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. Herberts strengths included strategic thinking about technology and the hands-on touch that looks like faith-healing to most executives.

He took joy in his departments 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.

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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 couldnt always get Herberts attention, and there was no one else who had the expertise to unstick many sticky challenges.

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