The Problem With Problems

A very long time ago I worked for a company that offered the finest training available anywhere. They still do. It is simply life-changing training that no other training organization has been able to duplicate, despite the fact that many have tried.

I was tasked with penetrating a very large account, one of the largest companies in the world, that we had done virtually no business with. They were all very nice people, happy to grant me time and “answer” any question I asked. The question I asked most frequently was: what type of problems do you face in your role?

The answer was always the same: nothing, not a thing, no problems at all.

With tens of thousands of employees spread around the world I knew that just wasn’t possible. But everyone answered the same. I asked my father, a 40 year employee of this large organization why they wouldn’t share with me.

He told me that they were being open, there just wasn’t any “problems.” There were issues, challenges, and opportunities but no problems, absolutely zero problems.

I changed my tactics and began to ask about challenges and issues. The combination of that new strategy on my part, and a change in leadership near the top of the organization resulted in it becoming the largest account ever for the world renowned training company.

It turns out the management team at the company I was trying to sell to was well-coached to think not in terms of problems but rather challenges and opportunities. Maybe too well coached.

Problems are real, they need to be addressed differently than mere challenges and opportunities. Left unattended problems almost always grow. Left unattended problems can destroy even the best organizations.

Here’s why I’m writing about this now. I wrote a post on problem solving a while back and in the post I recommended “living” with a problem a bit before trying to solve it. There are many benefits to getting to know a problem before rushing to eliminate it. When we “solution jump” we may address a symptom but miss the real underlying cause. Getting to know the problem makes that less likely.

So here’s the problem with my problem solving advice. Sometimes when we live with a problem too long we stop noticing the problem. We get too cozy with it. We see newer, fresher problems and begin to focus on those. Meanwhile, the first problem begins to grow under the surface until it is much harder to solve. Sometimes much much harder.

So here’s an addendum to my advice. Yes, live with a problem a bit before rushing to solve it. But LIVE with it, don’t get comfortable with it. Put a deadline on how long you’re willing to live with it. When the deadline arrives take action. Even if you have no additional insights or information take action based on what you do have. Even if you don’t have the total solution ACT on the information you have. A partial solution is better than no solution. The key is action.

That large organization I referred to had many unsolved problems because mere “challenges” didn’t seem so urgent. When we used that ugly word “problem” many things changed for the better. Working with that company is how I learned that semantics do matter.

Problem solving requires action, never put up with a problem for so long that it convinces you that it’s not really a problem. Don’t mistake a challenge for a problem. The first can help you grow, the second can help you grow or be the death of you. The first one can be your friend, the second most certainly is not.

Now, go deal with that problem you’ve been tolerating way too long!

7 thoughts on “The Problem With Problems

  1. I like the discussion of semantics you make. I have heard many people use the phrase you mention from this company. Our language we use is important and does help create mindset. The “solution jump” term is great, it does point out how we need to look for underlying problems not solve only the superficial issues.

    1. Thanks Tom, most organizations biggest problem when it comes to problem solving is attacking what appears to be the problem and not studying the situation long enough to ID the real problem.

  2. Great way to follow up on a big ‘problem’. : )

    Our culture is filled to the brim with vanilla words and phrase, words like ‘collateral damage’ that often serve as slight of hand or downright minimizing the real meaning or ‘severity’ of what is really going on.

    As you point out, when a problem is no longer allowed to be perceived as a problem, something happens that causes people subjected to it to begin minimizing very real issues that if not addressed, can eventually put people, families, organization, businesses, even countries in real jeopardy.

    I’ve made reference to Apollo 13 not only in a blog post I have written, but in comments on others posts as well. I have ‘joked’ on occasion about what would happen if the Apollo 13 incident happened today. I said something along the lines of:

    ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

    Possible responses from Houston (insert any number of ‘thinking’ that is passed around as truth today…)

    ~Apollo, it’s not really a problem…the way you are THINKING about it…is the problem.
    ~Apollo, why do you always have to be so negative?
    ~Apollo, how do you KNOW that’s really gas you are seeing venting out into space? Maybe it’s just your imagination!
    ~Wicked shimmy? Apollo. This was built by Americans! It’ll HOLD! Don’t worry about it!
    ~Apollo. This isn’t our problem. This is YOUR problem. Good luck.

    etc etc

    Now the above is meant to be humorous but in reality, I can tell you from first hand experience it’s not. Yet this dynamic and way of thinking is very real and prevalent in our culture.

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve encountered variations of this in many different fields and businesses and people throughout my life.

    People preferring to call problems ANYTHING except for what it really is. A problem needing to be solved.

    Yet as long as people aren’t willing to look at the problem because that’s too negative in this day and age, real problems don’t get solved and things eventually get serious. And eventually lead beyond the point of no return.

    And as long as people succeed in playing slight of hand by changing the wording around, people remain ignorant to just how serious things really are at times. Ignorant enough to remain in denial and not do anything about it.

    Thanks for sharing Steve. And for being courageous enough to add an addendum to a previous post.

    1. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then its a duck!

      If it negatively affects a person or organization then its a problem. As in: we don’t have a “situation” in Ferguson, we have a PROBLEM.

      It is what it is, “softening” what we call it doesn’t change or help amything. It seems that words really do matter!

      As always thanks for adding to my post, your comments are so spot on!

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