Problems love (to create) Problems…

In thinking about the concept of “problems” it came to me that by their nature they create “new” problems and just not one more, but many more!  If you will think back to a recent meeting where you are sitting there watching the swirls created by the creamer in your coffee as your boss is waxing on and on about some problem he has.  Then all of a sudden you look up from the comfort of the swirling coffee and his one “problem” has now metastasized itself into not just one other problem.  It has now “multiplied” itself as if you tossed a glass of water on to a fuzzy gremlin, your eyes grow wider while breathing quickens as you now realize that you along with several of your table mates in this meeting now your own a freshly minted “problem” as the “one” has now become many!

Minutes later as you walk out of the room with your new charge like a monkey with a strong grip around your neck if you will, your first reaction is you reach for your Black Berry and pen an invite for your staff, and the scenario repeats itself as you take your new “problem” and mint several more new ones!  Where does all of this madness stop?  What is the value proposition of this seeming infinite chain of “problems”?

In this scenario, one of the striking aspects which hit me as an epiphany was that “problems” are viral as they expand and this expansion because of the viral aspects means it can grow very rapidly.  With each step in the expansion, a cost is assessed; meaning the overall “cost” of the loop will grow in direct portion to the loop which can soon form a disruptive influence to the original proposition of the problem.

Ever play the “telephone game” in elementary school?  Where a chain of students are lined up and the first is whispered a message by the teacher, and then asked to share it via “whisper” again with the next person in line and so on down the chain?  What you will get at the end is nothing like what started out in the first place.  Keep in mind this “message” is being past down a straight line, however take a moment to think of the same game if at each next step the count “doubled” as in a hierarchal organization?

Well, this is the very thing which is happening everyday in the business world as “problems” flow from the top down, and end value is lost due to the organizational friction which these “problems” generate.  It’s also important to point out that opportunities are “not” problems, as “problems” do not have a positive side other then when solved, they return the situation (which spawned them) to a state of equilibrium.

To explore this, let’s build an example for discussion purposes and one of the most common I’ve heard in my career has been “unless X,Y and Z the customer will no longer buy from us”. So our starting position is that the customer “will” buy so this is our point of equilibrium, and now “X,Y and Z” is the acknowledged problem that once solved we have back what we started with.  In other words we gain back no more then we started with so the net cost of the problem was a pure impact to the bottom line.

Another famous example of this is “Houston we have a problem” as wasn’t the intent of Apollo 13 to return to the earth with its occupants safe and sound?  After the explosion created the “problem”, and then thankfully the “problem” was solved returning the situation to equilibrium, the astronauts did not gain per say from the ordeal they only got what was originally promised as in a safe return.

So how do we reduce the friction created by this “problem”?  First and foremost is identify the “source” of the “problem” as mentioned above is this being cascaded downward?  The answer will most likely be yes, therefore there will be distortion in the “problem statement” much like the telephone game which will lead to additional over head (i.e. friction).  In addition to the distortion, there is the likelihood of multiplicity in response because of the one to many nature as discussed above, most likely several groups are unknowingly working on the same problem adding even more friction (cost).

Most importantly, address the problem at the “root” or source as the majority of the time it is a perceptual issue and not a tangible one.  Also keep in mind that a “problem” say coming from the CEO is a minor problem, which is cascaded to a VP and now it’s a MAJOR problem as the VP will use this as a platform to build and promote his or her own self-worth rather than just solving the problem…

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About Joseph Campbell

As a strong believer in the fact that "people work for people", it has been a life driver to better to understand the complexities of the various aspects which drive efficiency within this axiom, especially the concepts of leadership. Supporting this, I have been fortunate enough to having experienced this as leader on a global basis over the last decade and half. During this time it has been clear there are three core drivers being Life, Leadership and Economics.
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