I’ve been in a bunch of organizations who initially are uncomfortable with using the word “problem.” I expect this is caused by feelings lingering from some previous negative experience with a problem of some kind. Most likely someone received some kind of punishment for having a problem. This would be particularly acute if that person wasn’t fully in control of the area that had the problem.
I suspect that some of this is also caused by our egos, which tell us we should not let anyone else see that we’re having any problems lest they think badly of us. This is where the expression “don’t air your dirty laundry” may originate.
In lots of places, people would rather say we have some “opportunities” or we have some “challenges.” Those seem to be nicer words than “problem” but they mean something different.
A problem is anything that happens that you didn’t expect to happen. Some are good “We get free HBO this weekend!” Some are bad “Wifi is down!” The key is that there is an expectation of some kind, but the actual condition was different and therefore it’s a problem.
An opportunity is something that you can choose to take advantage of or not. “We have an opportunity to sell 400 units to the government.” You don’t have to do that.
If you change the phrase to “opportunity for improvement” it’s still OPTIONAL. If there’s a problem – something that is not meeting our expectations – good or bad – we have to take some action. If it’s the positive side, “free HBO” could be an opportunity – we can choose to figure out if we want that to be the new expectation or not; but on the bad side, “the wifi is down” that’s something we have to fix.
You can make all the semantics arguments you want about these kinds of examples. What I want to get to is that we need to call problems – problems so we can apply an effective problem solving method to fix them.
But I also want to teach leaders how to CHALLENGE people because if a leader challenges people to do something different than they are doing now, that is, if the leader CREATES the problem by changing the expectation, that can drive some positive and creative behaviors. But people perceive that as impossible, they are going to be unwilling to accept the challenge. So even now, it’s optional. A leader can try to force the challenge, but if people are forced, they may not pursue it with gusto.
But consider this: Once accepted, once we decide to pursue an opportunity or take on a challenge, then, with new expectations set, any deviation from that new expectation is now a problem.
The difference is choice. For a problem, you don’t have a choice of whether or not to solve it…you have to find out what happened. For a challenge or opportunity, you first get the option to go for it. Once you choose, then you can use “problem” language because we’re going for it.
Another thing to consider is getting out of it. It’s often pretty difficult the get out of the challenge or opportunity once you accept it. For example, when Alex Honnold accepted the challenge to Free Solo El Capitan, he treated it like a problem to solve, planning and investigating and experimenting, and testing everything. But until he started up the wall, he had a choice. Half way up though, he didn’t have the option to quit.
What kind of challenge will get you fired up today?
Don’t forget to Vote tomorrow. I’m David Veech and this is Elevate Your Performance.
Have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow.
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