When Problems Aren’t Problems—Part I

When Problems Aren’t Problems—Part I by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by dhester. Available at morgueFile.com.

Does it seem that you spend nearly every waking moment solving problems? There are days when I sit at my desk for hours at a time exchanging emails, conducting phone and conference calls, and processing data in reports—all of which are related to one problem or another. Lately, I’ve had more days like that than not. Some of the problems get solved and I never see them again. However, too many keep coming back again and again. It’s all very frustrating. I would rather spend time on strategic and future-oriented issues. Recently, I found a tremendous insight into why many of these frustrating situations are in reality not “problems” to be solved!

One approach is systems thinking. I could and should apply systems thinking to those unsolvable problems to help generate more insight into what is going on. I need to better understand the full context of the problem, where it comes from, how it affects the organizational system, the true nature of the feedback, and so on. Taking the time to think things through on that level would certainly help. However, I discovered a new insight into problem solving that has changed my fundamental understanding of problems and whether or not I should even attempt to solve them.

First, I want to give credit where credit is due. The ideas presented below come from Barry Johnson, Ph.D. See the footnote to this article for a link to an easy-to-read and engaging article on these ideas.

Some definitions will help. In Johnson’s approach, problems to solve “are those with 1 right answer or 2 or more right answers that are independent.” One example is, “What is 4 + 4?” There is one right answer to that question: 8. Another example is, “How do I get to the grocery store?” There might be two or three ways to do that, but they are independent—I choose one and use that solution. I wouldn’t use two of them together, and the use of one solution doesn’t change the others.

Johnson explained that problem solving skills are very important because we encounter such solvable problems many times each day. As young children, we are still learning the “right” answers to these problems and have to think rather hard at many of them. As adults, though, most of the solutions are second nature and we breeze through them without thinking (the proper technique for brushing your teeth, how to get to work and what to do when an accident up ahead puts you at risk of being late for a meeting, what to do when your cell phone battery dies prematurely).

As you can see, problem solving really is an important part of every day. The lack of basic problem solving skills can interfere with your ability to engage in productive and healthy relationships at home, school, and work. (Adults who struggle with problem solving skills need trusted friends and mentors at their side to help them along. I challenge you to consider filling this role for someone.)

Be sure to access the link at the bottom of this article to download Johnson’s article. He delves deeper into the nuances of problem solving and explains five positive and five negative results of problem solving. He has very interesting insights!

I have one more thought to share on problem solving, then I will give you a preview into next week’s article on the “unsolvable problems.” Johnson made a very bold statement in his article:

“95-99% of the problems we are asked to solve in formal education are problems with a single right answer. Of the remaining 1-5%, virtually all of them are problems with more than 1 right answer that are independent.”

That’s great! Right? Our schools are teaching us important problem solving skills like

  • how to splice genes,
  • when a pilot should increase or decrease thrust,
  • where to find advice on investing strategies,
  • techniques for building safe homes,
  • and many more.

These are great things to know! However, while these challenges are very important, they are not the vexing problems that leaders (and followers alike) struggle with, and continue to struggle with, and then get frustrated with when they get even worse. The vast majority of your education hasn’t prepared you for dealing with the issues that go beyond standard problem solving.

The problem is that we deal with those “vexing problems” in the incorrect manner! The mistake we make, and what contributes to the frustration, is that we try to solve them like problems. What to do then? That’s where Johnson’s approach called “polarity management” comes to the rescue. I’ll unpack that next week. In the meantime, download the article and read ahead. It’s an easy read. You’ll enjoy it.

During the coming week, monitor the “problems” you are trying to solve. Do they have one right answer, or multiple independent right answers? Good, that’s a problem to solve. If not, then you need to start looking at the situation through a different lens.

1: Barry Johnson. “Polarity Management: A Summary Introduction,” Polarity Management Associates, June, 1998, http://westonatwood.com/uploads/2/8/4/4/2844368/polarity_management_-_summary.pdf

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