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  • Writer's pictureRobert Hutchinson

When Is a Problem Not a Problem?

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

As part of a business development initiative, I recently requested feedback from former clients about their experiences and results from our work together. In response to my first question, “Please describe your problem before working with Robert”, I was interested to receive several answers to the effect that ‘I wouldn’t say I had a ‘problem’, before going on to describe in detail what would generally be classed as a big problem! This got me thinking, “When is a problem not a problem?”

What is a Problem?

What is a Problem?

To get started, let’s get clear on what ‘problem’ means. Merriam-Webster defines a problem as ‘a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution’; ‘an intricate unsettled question’; and ‘a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation’. describes a problem as ‘any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty’. 

From a purely dispassionate perspective then, it might seem straightforward for a person to be able to say “I have a difficult, intricate or unsettled question for consideration that is causing me distress, and for which I would like to find a solution” - ergo a ‘problem’. But to say “I have a problem” brings the ego into play, which for some people can make it difficult to acknowledge that they have a problem and as a result, to seek support in working towards a solution. 

Of course, the consequence of failing to acknowledge a problem is that until a problem has been recognised there can be no action towards resolution. Worse still, the problematic situation can become the status quo; the ‘current reality’ becomes a normality that can even be comforting. 

A gap opens up between reality and potential…

Could you have a problem that’s not a problem?

So what reasons have I encountered as I coach successful business executives through transition? Here are the top three reasons I come across:

  • In Denial: Sometimes a situation can be so big or overwhelming that it’s easier to pretend it’s not there. The classic ostrich head in the sand approach. For many reasons, acknowledging a problem can provoke feelings of extreme discomfort, and yet ironically, recognising a problem and clearly defining it allows a solution to be identified. Accepting there is a problem to be solved is the first and most crucial step towards creating change.

  • Worldview: The human brain is an incredible automation system, but sometimes it can be too good. We can hold on too tightly to ‘automation scripts’ that effectively kept us safe and loved in the past (especially childhood), but no longer work effectively for us as adults. Our worldview or focus of attention can create blind spots or habits which can make a problem almost impossible for us to see.

  • Aversion to Failure: If I had £1 for every time this comes up, I’d be a rich man! Most people don’t like the idea of failure; in fact some people have a pathological aversion to failure. (Could this be you?) Failure can of course be defined in many different ways, and different people have different concepts of failure. The paradox with failure is that success is to be celebrated, but we learn from failure. Failure is in fact the best route to change and growth.

Seven Key Steps to Resolving A Problem

If you have a problem, big or small, get out a pen and paper and work through these steps to move towards a successful resolution:

  1. Acknowledge the Problem. This can often be the hardest step. Identify the problem, label it clearly and describe the problem in as much detail as possible.

  2. Depersonalise the Problem. If you’re in denial or struggling to accept the reality of a problem, try shifting your mindset from “I have a problem” to “There’s a problem here”, this can take the emotional heat out of the situation by reducing any shame or embarrassment that might be blocking action.

  3. Quantify the Impact. Using the rational mind also helps to reduce both emotional resonance and a tendency to ‘catastrophise’. So score how the clearly defined problem is impacting you on the Awfulness Scale from 1 to 100, where 1 is ‘totally insignificant’ and 100 is the death of a sick child from malnutrition. Putting a figure on what a lack of action is costing you can also clarify the opportunity-cost of inaction and motivate you to act.

  4. Have a Conversation. Speak to someone else about the problem because a problem shared is a problem halved. You might speak to a trusted colleague, friend or relative, or seek professional support from an expert in creating change.

  5. Describe the Opportunity. A problem that creates discomfort always carries an important message to be listened to. What is the problem telling you, and what is the opportunity that is waiting to happen? Who is that asking you to be? What is that asking you to do?

  6. Define Success. Having a clearly described problem, getting clear on the impact and being able to define the opportunity means that you can now set a clear goal for success. How would you know that the problem had been solved and what would success look like? Describe this in detail including how you would feel about the success.

  7. Create an Action Plan. Using the Hermetic Principle of Cause and Effect, we know that ‘Every Cause has its Effect; every Effect has its Cause’, so a problem can only move towards resolution through action. Outline the steps that will move you towards your goals and start by focusing ONLY on the first step. (The rest will follow).

Transformational change through problem resolution starts with a conversation, so feel free to share your observations, thoughts and insights in the Comments below. You might even be brave enough to share a current problem you’re trying to solve.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse: When Is a Problem Not a Problem?

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