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Problems! Glorious problems!

by Peter de Jager
in Innovation, Magazine, Management
November, 2016

C. K. Chesterton penned a quote that I’m especially fond of: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” This one constantly reminds me that there is always, without fail, an opportunity lying around somewhere. I just need to find it.

That wasn’t a typo; I meant to type “opportunity” I didn’t forget that this discussion was about “problems.” A problem is opportunity disguised as a thorn in your assumptions. Fix the problem and you’ve moved yourself forward in some manner, large or small.

Because of how I earn my living, I get lots of feedback – more than a person normally gets in other lines of work –file folders filled to overflowing with feedback. The good feedback is great; I love it (great reading when I’m down in the dumps). It’s what keeps me motivated to keep going. But, it’s the negative feedback, when people point out a problem, that’s the true treasure. Becoming aware of new problems, if we have the motivation to respond to them, is what motives us not only to “keep going,” but to start going in a new and improved direction. Problems are always doors to something better.

Organizations don’t like problems. We shy aware from them; we shoot messengers who bring them to us; we surround ourselves with 800 lb gorilla problems that no-one dares talk about; we have terms describing cultural approaches to problems (“willful ignorance” comes to mind); and we have to legislate whistleblower laws to protect those who make problems public. Organizations let problems fester until there is no other option but to lance them like boils.

As I write this, Wikileaks has announced that in January 2011 it will release documents disclosing a pile of “problems” in a major US bank. Of course, every “major” bank is worrying that their “problems” will see the light of day and are scrambling to either hide these problems more deeply or fix the problems as soon as possible. The irony is that, whatever organization is going to get their knuckles soundly rapped by Wikileaks, all organizations knew of these issues before Wikileaks, decided to take action. Organizations ignore problems that obviously need fixing until they are forced to act.

Not all problems fall into the category that Wikileaks exposes. Most of the organizational problems that readers of MW might encounter are more mundane, with less serious consequences. They fall more in the line of: our projects are always delivered late; it takes an inordinate amount of time to get things approved; our meetings are a waste of time; our customer service needs improvement, etc.

Yet, even these can become so much a part of the work environment that we become blind to them – hence my fondness of Chesterton’s quote. We are typically blind to most of the problems around us. We need some way to heighten our awareness of the invisible problems so that we can then, if we choose, correct them. If only we could place a bounty on problems, and in so doing, get everyone looking high and low for them!

Many organizations have some type of suggestion program where they encourage, and then sometimes reward –employees for bringing new ideas (usually in the form of “solutions”) to management’s attention. It’s a step in the right direction of constant improvement, but this strategy contains a hidden flaw. It usually, not always, requires that an individual identifies a problem and then comes up with a viable solution – often on their own. That’s a lot of work for someone who’s already overworked in these “tough economic times.”

Here’s another idea – instead of requiring a solution, how about just identifying a prominent problem? The individual tagging the problem doesn’t have to solve it, just recognize that it’s worthy of solution. The problem is then passed along to a group of people who love solving problems – people like myself, who see all problems as a personal challenge, even as an affront to our sense of order in the universe.

The challenge is still the fact that many problems just hide deep inside the “we’ve always done it that way!” bushes. It takes either a new set of eyes to see these opportunities, or a quickly annoying habit of constantly, incessantly, persistently asking “Why?” about every business process until inefficiencies (if they exist) are exposed.

Borrowing a new set of eyes isn’t too difficult to arrange; just make it part of the organizational culture to have people from one department work in other departments for short periods of time and report back what they see. The hurdle is for everyone to grasp that the observations, while they will sound like “criticisms,” are intended –from the very outset – as a way to get better at whatever it is we do for a living.

As to the “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” strategy, that requires someone with a peculiar personality. They must have both an analytical mind and a very, very good sense of humour. The Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? approach – especially about things that everyone takes for granted, takes some getting used to – a sense of humour can take the edge off just a little bit. MW

PETER DE JAGER speaks on Change Management – and prefers a really good problem over a fine bottle of wine any day of the week. You can reach Peter at and read his Management Zone column every month in Municipal World.

as published in Municipal World, March 2011

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