To be sure we both know what I’m thinking about, a sticky problem is a situation or issue that keeps hanging around despite our efforts to fix it or to make it go away. Let me share an example.
My parents lived in a manufactured home onto which they had added an extra room. The roof leaked in that extra room whenever it rained really hard. My dad had someone fix the roof, but a few months later, the leak was back. He had the roofer come back and repair the leak. It was fine for a few months but the leak returned. He had the roofer come back again and repair the leak. This fix-it process repeated two more times.
He was talking with a friend about his leaking roof. The friend said, “I’ll bet I know what’s wrong. Just patching the roof won’t work.” The friend went on to suggest a solution that seemed silly to Dad, but the friend offered to fix it and only charge if his solution worked. The friend came over and it only took him twenty minutes do apply his fix. My parents lived in that house for many more years with no leaks. When I asked, Dad said he didn’t understand what his friend had done or exactly why it worked, did know that the friend refused any payment and staying dry was good enough for him.
A sticky problem is anything that needs a solution, that doesn’t respond to your efforts to fix it or correct it and gets more annoying or frustrating as time passes. Your teenager not cleaning his room or not doing her homework, a team member not doing his or her share, recurring arguments about trivial issues, or any other problem or issue that persists and what you are doing to fix it isn’t working are all examples of sticky problems.
Here’s what usually happens. We try to solve the problem with no success. We try again and again, getting more and more frustrated. What we are doing just isn’t working but we keep trying, using the same approach, the same solution strategy. The change is that we escalate the intensity of our effort, especially if the problem is with another person. The result is that the fallout from our failing efforts is frequently worse than the problem. Nonetheless, we persist.
What to do is not easy to figure out, but there is always one thing we can do and usually should do. Unless the problem is causing real and permanent damage or harm like Dad’s leaking roof, Don’t do anything, including stopping whatever you have been trying to fix the problem. But you have to do something? No, you don’t. At least you don’t have to do anything until you come up with a different and better way to work on the problem or issue. Just give it a rest and then keep giving it a rest for a couple of weeks. Sometimes the problem or issue just goes away by itself given a chance and if not, you are likely to figure out a better and more effective way to deal with it. If the problem is still there and you don’t have an answer, you are no worse off since what you were doing wasn’t helping anyway.