On Problems and Opportunities

by Philip Brewer on 2 October 2012 1 comment

One manager I knew used to correct people when they said they had a problem. "It's not a problem," he'd say, "It's an opportunity." He was kind of a jerk. (See also: Incentive Plans Always Go Awry)

It was something of a fashion in management-speak at the time — that anything that seems like a problem is really an opportunity to do better. And despite the fact that this particular manager was a jerk, there's an underlying truth there. It's very easy to get so wrapped up in accomplishing your intermediate goals that you lose sight of what you're really trying to get done.

For example, if you're trying to photograph something, and you're only getting crappy photographs, you might be inclined to say that you have a problem taking a good photograph. But it's always worth taking a step back and considering whether you a better photo is really what you need. Maybe what you need is a drawing. Maybe what you need is a description in words. Maybe what you need is to bring people there in person and show them the real thing. Maybe someone else has already taken a great photo that you can use.

There's no limit to the possible examples. Maybe what you think is a car problem is actually a bicycle opportunity. Maybe what you think is a job problem is actually a small-business opportunity. Maybe what you think is a rural-living problem is actually an urban-living opportunity. (Or maybe you have the reverse.)

Maybe what seems like a problem is really an opportunity to figure out that you were trying to do the wrong thing.

If you have a problem, take a step back and think about what you're really trying to accomplish. Maybe whatever you're struggling with can be done some completely different way. Maybe it it doesn't need to be done at all.

So, if there's some truth there, why did pointing it out make this manager I knew into such a jerk? That's easy — what made him a jerk was that he was denying the truth of other people's perceptions. They thought they had a problem, and he was saying, "You're wrong!" That's just rude.

If someone thinks they have a problem, don't tell them they're wrong. But do encourage them to take a step back and think about what they're really trying to accomplish. Maybe whatever they're having a problem with can be done an entirely different way, or be skipped altogether.

Maybe they really do have an opportunity, rather than a problem.

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Good point. Sometimes when you're trying hard to figure out a problem, you're only thinking along certain lines. When you decide to break down barriers and "think outside the box", you can often come up with an even better idea as a solution that simply thinking logically.