Problems to Solve, or Tensions to Manage?

A few days ago, I ran into a colleague that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks at our company café. As we caught up while standing in line to order our lunches, he commented on the fact that I carry two phones with me and asked why. I explained that I try to keep my personal and work communications separate, and this allows me to “put away” my work texts and emails when I’m spending time with my kids by physically placing my work phone in my purse for a few hours. I admitted that while this tactic had worked for me for a number of years, lately it had become a bit of a challenge. As my work responsibilities evolved, I found I was carrying my work phone with me all the time, and it was causing me a lot of stress because I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. “Have you ever considered that might be a tension to be managed, not a problem to be solved?” he suggested.

Coined by speaker, author and pastor Andy Stanley, this organizational development theory referenced by my colleague suggests that not every issue is a conflict that requires resolution, but may, instead, be a tension that needs to be managed. While this is perhaps more often applied to organizational development, my colleague hit on an intriguing concept that can be applied at a personal level as well. 

2019 has been a year of change and transition in my professional life. A leadership change, new additions to our legal team, and a change in the delineation of our job duties came with great new opportunities and exciting ideas, but also introduced new relationships, new expectations and new communication styles. One surprising byproduct of these changes was the overhaul to my daily and weekly workflow, including my email. Until this year, I was accustomed to a bell curve of emails that began around 8am and tapered off around 5pm. I could often spend the last fifteen minutes of my workday preparing my to-do list for the next day, completing administrative tasks and managing any last minute questions that came in. I now find myself with a bell curve of emails that usually begins a few hours earlier each day, peaks around 4:30pm, and tapers off at night. Instead of spending the last few minutes of my workday prepping for the next day, I’m now in the thick of work right up until the minute I have to rush out the door to pick up my kids, finishing open items when they go to bed. The teams I support require quick responses from me, and I never want to be the hold-up. However, maintaining that quick turnaround in this new model, with these different teams, felt impossible. I spent the past few months viewing this as a problem that required a specific solution, and I became incredibly frustrated with myself for not being able to “fix” my workflow to match my own expectations for my responsiveness. 

What if I reframed this issue? If my workflow was a tension that needs to be managed, instead of a problem that required solving, what could that mean to me? I first had to let go of the idea that my workflow would ever be as predictable as it was in the past, and the type of teams I support and the work I do for them doesn’t always allow our communications to neatly fit within the traditional workday. This is not something that can be solved. Rather, I needed to consider what steps I could take to manage my workflow in a new way that allows me to create a new type of routine with new expectations.

I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m figuring it out! Once I allowed myself to acknowledge this issue is not something that should be looked at as having a cut-and-dry resolution, but rather a tension that requires management, I felt some relief. I wasn’t a failure by not being able to solve the problem using my old methods. I just needed to find a way to manage the tension by applying some new processes, new time management techniques, new tools and new expectations.     

Thanks, Keith, for the “a-ha” moment. 

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