Meta Problems and Where to Find Them

Credit: PxHere

Meta-problem (n): root cause issues of a collection of symptom problems.

One of the things I do as an engineering director, is live in the realm of the meta problem. The thing that is behind the problems that people are talking about.

For instance, a meta problem of an individualistic mindset on the team might result in:

  • Poor onboarding
  • Inequitable division of work
  • “Not my job” attitude
  • Lack of collaboration
  • Lack of feedback

Yes, these things individually need to be addressed, but that will look different if you address them one by one, or guided by a North Star of “collective responsibility”.

Similarly, a meta problem of poor people management might result in:

  • Lack of feedback
  • Lack of interest in management
  • Lack of growth
  • Lack of clarity around team purpose
  • Burnout
  • Fear of change
  • Resentment of authority

Addressing the root cause by doing good people management and empowering others to do good people management will shift these issues more effectively than considered one by one.

Teams that are struggling have a collection of issues, and part of transformation to a functional team is to root cause and address the meta problems. Working symptom by symptom may not change, may actually re-enforce the meta problem. E.g. if you have a problem of code review being slow and a meta problem of team workload, then the answer is different if you have a problem of slow code review and a meta problem of individualistic mindset.

Addressing meta problems often involves shifting the culture in some way. Things are the way they are for a reason – a series of decisions reflecting organizational priorities at the time, distorted by the coping mechanisms of individuals (particularly those with more influence on the team). It takes time to address the ensuing consequences, but much less time if you take it holistically rather than symptomatically.