What is your problem?

First published in Danish at No Crisis-bloggen.

Problems exist in large amounts everywhere around us. They make a basis for frustrations, sorrow, hard work, discussions, accusations, and – tabus.

Do problems actually exist?


“There are no problems, only challenges,” some people say. And others take it even a step further: “there are no challenges, only opportunities.” The word “problem” has itself become a problem and is now often considered taboo.

Actually it is a good word, which according to various etymological dictionaries means “way out”, “bringing forward” or the more familiar “difficult question/task proposed for getting solved.” We expose ourselves to lots of problems every day, not just through crossword puzzles and sudokus, but also the planning of our calendars, finding the way, and choosing which of several possible dishes to have for dinner.

There are enough of problems and therefore plenty of opportunities to push things forward, find solutions and ways out, and above all: use our brains for what they were probably developed for – to deal with problems.

I mainly got my mental picture of the positive psychology from Donald Sutherland’s figure “Oddball” in the movie “Kelly’s Heroes” – constantly noticing which positive and negative vibrations were around him. It has become a prevalent way of thinking today, where a large share of leaders, coaches, and coaching leaders have got the idea that all thoughts about problems should be left behind – instead, one must focus on all the good, which will create a snowball effect, causing the problems to fade or simply disappear or resolve themselves while everyone spend their energy on seeking and enjoying the good things.

Some problems, however, cannot resolve themselves, and I believe that even supporters of positive psychology must appreciate that, for instance, doctors, firefighters and food inspectors see and resolve problems. And then I hope that most companies would appreciate getting a consultant to help analyze their situation, spot problems and bring these forward for dicussion and resolution.

Professional problems

It can often be difficult to solve problems when you are close to them, because strong emotions can block rational behavior. Emotions are certainly not themselves problematic, and they can definitely be acceptable as a basis for decision, but usually it will be better if you can combine the emotions with a rational, logical thinking that extends beyond the close and immediate and takes into account the entire company and its abilities and opportunities to manage the solution.

The world of literature and movies is full of entertaining examples of how little things can turn into true disasters, because they are escalating through a chain of bad decisions. Mr. Bean did this way give his ever growing contribution to the painting of Whistler’s mother in the movie “Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie.”

I have myself seen scaring examples of a boss who in a moment of anger fired whole departments. Here, a rational problem analysis could have led to better results, and if the boss in the example could not see beyond his anger, his feelings, a pair of unbiased eyes might have helped. It had been even better if an analysis had been made before the anger appeared – and thus in advance had offered an overview of latent problems. To professionalize the problems by letting an outsider help finding them, may be the way to avoid disasters.

Acknowledgement and recognition

When an organization wants to make organizational changes – to go through a change process – it first has to acknowledge that this is what is about to happen. It may sound trivial, but often it is seen as a minor thing, perhaps a kind of therapy for a dysfunctional department or as an activity that can keep an energetic department manager occupied, without actually considering how the organization will be affected. The introduction of Lean, as an important example, often starts like that, but it usually ends up being a complete reconstruction of the organization.

If you acknowledge that you want to change the organization, you must also acknowledge that there may be some obstacles – some latent problems that probably can and will materialize during the process. Such problems can be caused by a number of factors, which I will continue to elaborate on in future blog postings, such as internal political tensions, lack of agreement on what the change is all about and multible simultaneous agendas, leading to counterproductive priorities and sub-optimizations.

In addition, there may be quite obvious problems, such as not having the resources of various kinds needed for the change, or that contractual, legal, or economic aspects directly prevent that the change process can get started.

The recognition that you have problems – obvious as well as latent – is already the solution to the first problem that otherwise would have destroyed everything from the very start: that the situation is not being taken seriously. So one point is home, and then the good style just need to continue with a problem analysis where most of the problems are brought to the surface and shared, as knowledge and understanding, by everybody involved, who then through understanding each others’ as well as their own problems can help removing obstacles and design the change so that it takes most of the important factors into account.

There are several methods for this, and the most important is probably that you get it done. At the same time, there is rarely anyone who understands all consequences of an organizational change, and there are other changes taking place in the world along the way, so it is important to follow up regularly. Then you know all the time what problems you have and how you intend to deal with them – and this way it will be easier to avoid disasters.

Timely care

The recognition of problems can be seen as taking care in a timely manner and by that demonstrating a responsible behavior. A dialogue-based problem analysis in addition tends to bring forward a lot of possibilities as a welcome side benefit to the solution of the problems.

So what is your problem? Or rather, your problems in relation to the considered changes, activities, and projects? Let’s figure it out, so that you can take appropriate action and avoid suddenly one day to find yourself in a crisis.

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2 Responses to What is your problem?

  1. tomasbisono says:

    One thing is for sure, a lot of problems will never solve themselves. Having said that, I’m a firm believer of positive thinking. As an athlete, when I was younger, we were trained to think positively and believe in our preparation. As an adult, I’ve experienced that the more you let vicissitudes rule your thoughts, the more complex your life will become. It’s too short a life to live it overwhelmed with “stuff”.

    • Thanks for your comment. You are probably right about making the life easier by not being solely focused on problems. And, indeed, lots of problems either do solve themselves, turn out to be less problematic than first thought, or will eventually be solved by somebody else.

      What often happens in relation to projects and change programs, however, is that these are started up without considering where they are likely to fail. And so they fail! Not very surprising, when you think of it. In some cases this is a result of positive psychology: it is simply forbidden or at least tabu in many companies to mention problems. You are supposed to have a “can do” attitude and should not let anything stop you. Only your negative thoughts can break the strain of fortune.

      Well… while it is difficult to predict anything about the future, it is certainly impossible to say in advance if some problem can be solved ad hoc or not. What I have seen, however, is that some distance into the project it often turns out that different stakeholders have different expectations to it. They are in it for different reasons. Some suddenly see a benefit in abusing this confusion for their personal purposes, while others firmly believe that the others are wrong. No matter what happens, if you haven’t found accommodation from the beginning, confirming and adjusting it on the way, you will often see conflicts and counterproductive behaviour along the way. And if there at some point will be any doubt among the stakeholders on the very purpose and benefit of the project, they could pull the plug – literally or by attitude.

      Additionally, many external factors can kill the project on the way. Most of these can be foreseen – for instance, if you develop new procedures and want to impose them on people (blue or white collar alike) you will meet what looks like resistance. You can fight this when it occurs, or you can in advance expect this “problem” to happen and choose a different and more appropriate approach from the very beginning.

      Common for these and many more problems is that you can expect them to appear in your project. Some of them because “they always do” – these are the usual suspects in project and change management that can and must be handled up-front to avoid a crisis later on. Others are of the type that noone wishes to talk about but which often kills a project: internal conflicts, lack of funding, lack of power, different expectations to costs, time and scope, different ideas on importance – and, perhaps the most important: different success criteria.

      Being aware of such matters is necessary. An initial analysis can help, but it must be repeated regularly – things do change, 360 degrees around the project, and inside the project as well. Renewed and confirmed accommodation is needed for it to survive. This is not “negative psychology”: being aware of problems, existing as well as expected, is a very positive thing. It is like fighting fire by prevention, like putting on a parachute to prevent the foreseen problem of hitting the ground too fast.

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