Seeing the Real Problem

As someone who conducts personal development sessions and related management and soft skills courses of all kinds, I get to see a lot of people seeking to solve a while variety of problems, of all kinds.  What I have noticed, over the years, is that most of the people who attend these courses do not generally consider the possibility that they themselves might be the source of their own problems and any suggestion that this might be the case is often dismissed out of hand.

If they have difficulty dealing with people, for example, then a common perspective is that the other person is at fault in some way. It is very rare for someone to start thinking about their own approach and how it might be changed in order to produce a better outcome. What they usually want when they attend a management course, is to find some new technique for controlling the situation and getting other people to do their bidding and they are generally looking for quick fixes.

The same is true for many other problems that people face in the workplace. Take time management for example. When people attend a time management course, it is usually because they are under considerable pressure at work to get more done than they can actually manage. What they are usually after is some technique that will enable them to generate more time. The difficulty is that, even with more time, the real problem would not go away. You can’t manage time, of course, you can only manage yourself, but very few people see their time management problem in terms of self-management.

Many things we need to learn how to manage in life really boil down to learning how to manage ourselves. Let’s take one more example. People who never have enough money to meet their financial commitments and buy the things they want and need never usually see that problem in terms of their own spending and saving habits. The problem, as far as they are concerned, is not them; it is that they don’t earn enough money.

What all of these examples have in common is that the real, permanent solutions can only be found by first recognising what the real problem actually is. People are not inherently difficult. For every person that you find difficult, there will be someone else who thinks that particular person is wonderful. Time cannot be managed. We all get the same amount of time: high performers and poor performers all get exactly the same amount, so the amount of time is not the problem. Finally the amount of money you earn is never the real problem for those who don’t have enough, despite the illusion to the contrary.

To solve any problem, we need to first see it for what it really is; as they say in all the problem-solving models, it needs to be properly defined. Without a proper definition of your problem, the solutions you produce will always be ineffective because they will be focussed upon addressing the wrong causes. Of course, this is never a popular answer for people who are struggling with the problems we have briefly discussed, but when we begin to understand how we ourselves have created the situation we find ourselves in, then real solutions do finally become accessible.

Exactly the same is true for organisations. As Peter Drucker once said, ‘it is not that organisations cannot solve their own problems, it is that they can’t see them’. That is a very profound observation. If a company sees its sales problems in terms of having incompetent sales staff, then that definition will produce certain solutions; if, on the other hand, it sees those same difficulties in terms of market challenges, then a new array of possibilities open up.

Of course the problem may be incompetent staff. But, it may not. The point is that possible solutions will go unexplored whilst the organisation remains convinced that it has incompetent staff. Today I heard on the news that Chelsea have appointed a new manager; that’s their 7th manager within the last 8 years. Whilst the owner of the club continues to see the club’s difficulties in terms of management ability, he is doomed to continue to repeat this cycle. Whether they should or should not have sacked the manager is not the point, the point is that whilst you see the problem in those terms, you limit your access to available solutions.

Whilst we perceive our problems as outside of ourselves, we may simultaneously condemn ourselves to be forever searching for the wrong answer. Now, please don’t misunderstand me: sometimes the problem is outside of ourself, but many times it is not. The answers to your problems with apparently difficult people may really reside within, and the first step to finding the solution may be the recognition that you need to change. The same is true with many time management difficulties: the solution can often be found in improving your organisational ability. Finally, your money difficulties, if you have them, can usually be solved by learning  to live within your means.

These solutions are never popular and often when they are advanced, they will be immediately dismissed by those who are searching for solutions. One reason for this is because people want quick fixes and these solutions are not quick fixes, but they do strike right at the heart of the problem. A refusal to see these problems for what they are produces the wrong solutions: better quality staff, more time, more money. But until we are ready to see our problems for what they really are, the real solutions will continue to evade us.

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