Personal Finance

When the problem is not the problem


Ability to solve problems today trumps the ability to plan for the future. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


  • Problems can be a wake-up call for taking another route, an opportunity for some creative out-of-the-box thinking. Or better yet, get rid of the box altogether.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” said Albert Einstein.

Just when you have gained momentum on a critical project, and things are working out, an unexpected problem stops you dead in your tracks.

This problem looks impossible to solve or it is too overwhelming. The way you look at the problem determines your ability to solve it. Start with defining exactly what the predicament is. Problems range in difficulty from the simple, one bordering on the impossible, to the wicked.

Be like Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective created by British writer Agatha Christie. When solving a dilemma, notice the mundane clues that others ignore. Diagnosis is key. Often a CEO can be quick to state a problem, that is not the problem, but more the symptom of the underlying root cause.

A skill high demand

Solving tricky problems is a skill required at this period of rapid change. For organisations to thrive, they must be agile and quickly address the problems appearing out of uncertainty. Ability to solve problems today trumps the ability to plan for the future. In our increasingly high-tech digital world, the one skill that is always going to be in demand is problem-solving.

Problem-solving lies at the heart of what managers do. The more senior the manager, the more difficult the problems they are confronted with.

With the higher level of problem-solving ability comes stress and up goes the blood pressure. Those that progress in their careers tend to be fixers, problem-solvers, people who can get things done. They can be relied upon to come up with a solution to an intractable challenge.

Have a framework

A useful seven-step creative problem-solving framework is described in the “Bulletproof Problem Solving” by Charles Conn and Robert McLean, two former McKinsey partners.

Step one is defining the problem, step two is disaggregating, taking the issues in the problem apart, creating the best guess, a hypothesis of what one thinks is happening, ideally shown visually on a logic tree.

Our brains have an incredible ability to remember pictures. In contrast, our ability to remember spoken words and text is not as accurate. Therefore, it is important to visualise problems, sketch them out on a piece of paper, draw a logic tree, break apart all the elements of the problem, and draw the various courses of action, shown in the branches.

A logic tree is a mental model of the business problem. Don’t worry if it is messy, it does not have to be a work of art, just get it down on paper and share it with your colleagues to get their input and ideas.

This will help you see the issues, that make-up the problem, and begin to map out the best course of action, considering the likely implications.

The worst case is when a company’s leadership does not recognise that there is a problem. “It isn’t that they cannot find the problem. It is that they cannot see the problem” is how Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a writer and philosopher, expressed this.

The initial reaction to the problem is usually, “oh my goodness, not this again, it can’t be possible”. After the initial shock, there is the opportunity to define the problem from many perspectives.

Tony Robbins, the author of ‘Awaken The Giant Within’ says, “every problem is a gift. Without out them we wouldn’t grow.” Problems can be a wake-up call for taking another route, an opportunity for some creative out-of-the-box thinking. Or better yet, get rid of the box altogether.

Watch out for those who hesitate to use the word: ‘problem’, and love to call things ‘challenges.’ It may be that they are secretly discounting the severity of the situation because they have not made the effort to understand it, and hope it just magically disappears.

There is always the temptation to try and evade a problem, hope that it will just melt away. But when you act, breaking the problem apart, then it becomes more manageable. “All problems become smaller when you confront them instead of dodging them,” said William Halsey, a celebrated US Navy Commander.

A good jua kali mechanic can often know a car’s problem by listening to the noises it is making. Just the way, a physician can do a quick diagnosis, providing an effective course of treatment, by just listening to the symptoms.

From simple to wicked

Problems exist on a spectrum, from the simple to the wicked. A wicked problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are tough to recognise. It may be that there is not one single solution, where it is called “wicked” because of how difficult it is to resolve, with all sorts of complex interdependencies.

In wicked problems, uncertainty is high, and there is all sort of interdependencies. Everything is connected; social, political, and technological problems. For instance, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic fall in the wicked category.

What do Poirot and Safaricom have in common?

One of the great problem solvers is Poirot, the fictional Belgian detective created by the novelist Agatha Christie. Poirot’s success lies in his little grey cells noticing the most mundane, unusual clues that others fast dismissed.

For Poirot, the simplest explanation is the most likely. Occam’s Razor which dates back 800 years, is applied today in fields ranging from medicine to physics. Occam’s razor is based on the principle that, when faced with several explanations, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. [It’s called a ‘razor’ as it cuts through fuzzy thinking, shaving away unnecessary assumptions.]

Successful companies offer products and services that solve customers’ problems.

Amazingly, Safaricom’s share of combined investor wealth at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) hit a high of 63 percent. Part of the reason for that is that company offers products and services that add value.

One thing is certain: problems will always be in abundant supply.

It helps to remember the words of the American writer, James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced. “

David J. Abbott is a director at aCatalyst Consulting. [email protected]