The Problem with Problems

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to be a problem? Your children are late for school, you miss the bus, and as you arrive at work, you realize that you forgot your meeting notes at home.

On top of that, two of your employees call in sick and before you get a chance to browse your e-mail inbox, your spouse calls asking if you can pick up your son from school because he’s sick. OMG, right?

If you determine that the above scenario qualifies as a problem(s) (i.e., one of “those” days!), you are using what experts call “deficit thinking.” That is, by focusing on problems, our plans of action will be concerned with fixing the problem or correcting the “deficit.” This kind of thinking can be seen not only in our personal lives, but in our organizations, as well.

Consider this: If we spend the majority of our time focusing on what is wrong with our organization, we can overlook what is right. And every organization has a mix of right and wrong. But organizations that look at what is right or what is working well, are able to shift their concerns to create more opportunities for success.

This “appreciative inquiry” approach energizes, motivates, and helps organizations emphasize its strengths rather than its weaknesses. In contrast, deficit thinking zaps our energy, de-motivates, and when one is only focusing on problems, all that can be seen are weaknesses.

This is not to say that organizations should ignore the problems or that problems will go away through appreciative inquiry. Problems must be resolved as they arise. If not, they can multiply like viruses. There is a time and place for both appreciative inquiry and deficit thinking, with the latter being extremely useful for immediate resolutions.

There are several things that organizations can do to fix problems. The most important thing, however, is to distinguish problems from symptoms. If one works on correcting symptoms, then the problem never goes away. For example, kids being late for school, you missing the bus and forgetting your meeting notes are the symptoms—the problem is that you didn’t give yourself enough time to manage your morning.

Flipping the symptoms and problems on their heads, the fact that you were running late all morning gave you more time to spend with your children. Now that’s an opportunity worth cherishing.

In addition to the appreciative inquiry versus deficit thinking approaches to problems, another way to frame our “problems” is to use Stephen Covey’s 90-10 Principle. This principle says that we are in control of 90 percent of what happens in our lives because of the choices we make. We can choose to rush through life or take a leisurely pace. We can choose to react in anger when something goes wrong or look on the bright side.

The problem with problems isn’t a problem at all. It’s an opportunity to grow personally and to improve organizational effectiveness that, in turn, helps us learn innovative ways of handling problems. And in so doing, you might discover that you will have fewer problems to solve in the long term.

Resistance is Futile

For Star Trek fans, the title of this blog will feel familiar. The show’s alien species, the Borg, made the saying “resistance is futile” famous in popular culture. The saying is a core concept in the Borg’s quest for perfection through a forced assimilation of individuals.

These forced assimilations have no place in the real world, but sometimes organizational change initiatives might feel like the Borg is in control. It does not have to be this way.

When organizations undertake change initiatives, they are answering three questions:

  1. What to change?
  2. To what to change to?
  3. How to make the change happen?

The first two questions are typically easy to answer. It’s question three that usually stumps individuals and organizations. And it’s question three where resistance is usually most prevalent.

Resistance to change occurs when one or more “layers of resistance” are not addressed during the change process. These layers of resistance arise in any of the above questions (or phases) and involve inadequate resolution of one or more of the following situations :

  • Lack of agreement on the problem
  • Lack of agreement on a possible direction for a solution
  • Lack of agreement that the solution will truly address the problem
  • Concern that the solution will lead to new undesirable side effects (“Yes, but…”)
  • Lack of a clear path around obstacles blocking the solution
  • Lack of follow-through even after agreement to proceed with the solution (unverbalized fear or concerns)

When there is resistance to change, astute leaders take time to address the layers of resistance to gain (or re-gain) support for change. They do this by demonstrating a whole-system view to problem root cause and solutions. Francis S. Patrick of Focused Performance shares excellent solutions for resistance to change by applying Theory of  Constraints Thinking Processes.

In a nutshell, Patrick uses sufficiency and necessity logic as well as tree diagrams to address each layer of resistance. For example, “If…then…because…” explains why situations exist or why we believe particular actions will result in certain outcomes. Further, using “In order to…, we must…,” he associates requirements with desired outcomes.

The thinking tools are an excellent way to encourage collaboration and dialogue, resulting in common sense outcomes for all participants. They also help link the three questions of change into a seamless process that provide meaningful and powerful improvements in the organization.

By using Theory of Constraints thinking to implement change, not only is resistance eliminated, but individuals will not feel as if resistance is futile. Nor will assimilation feel like such a bad thing!