The Problem with Problems. Creating New Opportunities.

In the movie Burlesque starring Christina Aguilera as Ali Rose and Cher as Tess,  Ali has just proven to Tess that she has what it takes to be a Burlesque dancer. Shortly after, we see a view of the stage with Ali and two other women lip-synching the song Tough Lover with all the attitude they have. Jealous of Ali, Nikki manipulates the stage manager to leave his booth and proceeds to unplug the sound. Silence falls on the stage and the curtain is being pulled down. Ali begins to sing and the crowd goes wild.

Problem or opportunity?

While I was at eBay in 2014, a decision was made to separate PayPal and eBay. Up until then many services such as IT, Human Resources, etc. were centralized. Being part of the centralized Human Resources team, Leadership had to decide how to divide one team of people between two companies.

Problem or opportunity?

All life is problem-solving.

Karl Popper

Every day we have a list of things to get done, challenges to solve, questions to answer and problems to solve. We think of problems as a bad thing. We just want them to go away. The thing is, life doesn’t stay the same, things change, and what worked today won’t work tomorrow. New priorities are raised, people quit, and projects slip their dates. When we embrace problems as part of life and get a different perspective on them, they can be a lot easier to work through for us, and our teams.

Why do problems plague us so?

Our brains have a built-in bias towards negativity. We simply have a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news, it’s more sensational and elicits more of a reaction from us. Why? To keep us out of harm's way. It’s made us excellent at scanning our environment to look for danger or safety. When it’s safe, our nervous system’s can relax and all the resources spent defending us can now be put towards things like creativity. Unfortunately for us, this means when another problem gets piled on top of our already full day it can test our resilience and stress us out.

What is a problem, really?

Besides being a pain in your ass. What is a problem? The dictionary defines a problem as:

  • a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
  • an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law.

Ok... So the world is also telling us that a problem is, well bad. What if there’s a more empowering way to look at it. What if a problem is only a sign that something is out of balance?

[bctt tweet="What if a problem is just the sign that something is out of balance."]

Problems as opportunities

Two people can be given the same problem and tackle it completely differently. In Burlesque, one person could have scrambled to figure out why the music wasn’t playing, instead, Ali started to sing. With the case of PayPal and eBay splitting, one leader could have split the people equally between the two companies versus using the change as an opportunity to look at the companies needs and the team's strengths. On one side, are people fixing problems and making the unwelcome thing go away. On the other side, people who see a problem as a possibility for fresh thinking.

One of the skills valued in leaders today is vision and innovation. Looking at problems as opportunities is a step to growing those capabilities. It’s the ability to not see a problem as just resolving the immediate issue, but using the problem as a pause to reassess the outcomes to be accomplished and to provide fresh new solutions. It’s a simple switch of point of view that looks for growth and opportunity. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning a problem statement about what is lacking to focus on what is possible. For example.

A) We have to split one team between two companies.

B) We have to distribute our talent to best meet the future needs of both companies.

See the difference? You are moving from a fix it mindset to an improve it mindset.

[bctt tweet="The difference between a problem and an opportunity is improving versus fixing."]

Cultivate a new way of thinking

We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.

Russell L. Ackoff

When a problem comes your way here are some steps to consider to get to a new point of view and to start to see opportunities.
  1. Have a clear understanding of the outcome of the problem. If the problem was fixed what would be possible? This will help you clearly pinpoint the real problem.
  2. Have a clear understanding if this is really a problem. What’s the outcome if nothing is done?
  3. Have a clear understanding is this a generic problem or a unique problem. If generic, there may be a larger problem at play and it’s time to look at the larger context, system, or process that created the problem.
  4. Have a clear understanding of the priority of the problem/opportunity versus the rest of the opportunities you have. Is this urgent? Is this important?

Support your team to solve problems

Colin Powell sais "Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Colin’s got a point, leadership is solving problems, but he doesn’t talk about how. A good leader helps and empowers their team to solve their own problems.

Consider creating a culture where everyone is empowered and encouraged to solve problems and to take risks. Then, give your team members tools and new ways to think. While other times, team members have solutions and they just need the encouragement and vote of confidence to give something a try. We as leaders than learn to step back and accept the possibility of something going wrong. Knowing that this gives our team a great learning opportunity. Even if you decide to solve the problem yourself, this is a prime time for coaching and mentorship. Work with the team member to brainstorm possibilities and think through the outcome. Give them insight into how you would think through and frame the problem. Below are some sample coaching questions that could be used.

  1. What are the opportunities?
  2. What are the obstacles?
  3. What are your options?
  4. What have you tried?
  5. What do you think the answer is?
You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.

    If all else fails, take a break from the problem and get a different point of view. Try something silly and think of it from the point of view of a nine-year-old, take a walk and get a breath of fresh air, and remember this problem could be an opportunity for something even better.


    About the Author

    Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

    Kim-ElishaCreate & Navigate Change, Lead Smarter