Happy Companies Make Loyal Employees – Problem Solving vs Opportunity Seeking; Fourth in a Series

Posted: June 27, 2017  

Humans pride themselves on problem solving. Yes, it is a good thing; it comes in handy when reacting to a threat to your survival. Until recently, humans faced negatives that needed to be neutralized rather than positives to be pursued. Our emotional brain is programmed to see and fix problems.

The residual of leading from fear has left its mark. We remain problem solving creatures. Do you notice all the courteous drivers on the highway or do you immediately notice that one reckless driver? The reckless one puts you in peril and our brains are wired to look for peril. We like television programs and movies that depict horror and violence. Why? Because it titillates the emotional brain.

Case in point from What Happy Companies Know, the TV show, The Sapranos. The characters are constantly in conflict while trying to solve the immediate problem brought on by their current behavior. They become skilled at making their way through the maze. However, they never get out of the maze that they have created. They don’t examine the underlying cause – they are in a violent, despicable profession. None seek an out-of-the-box solution such as leaving the profession.

Strangely, problem solving is another form of aggressive behavior that creates a preoccupation with a target. We quickly begin to view the world through a problem lens which leads to a negative view. This focus shifts the mind into a state of fear and the problem solving soon causes more problems than it fixes. Meetings about problems quickly become about assessing blame. With blame being assigned, people become defensive – they stop communicating, point fingers and look for a scapegoat. A meeting called to solve a problem(s) seldom provides a constructive result. Rather, it reinforces the negative behaviors already present in the group.

Despite this, problem solving remains the go to mode in business. It is what we have always done. A multi-billion dollar industry of consultants has developed to solve the problems of our fear-based organizations.  Yet, few companies realize that problem solving is a negative attribute. It looks at what is wrong instead of what is right. It is tactical rather than strategic; short term rather than long term; looking at what has happened in the past not what can happen in the future – it inevitably degrades into a number of fear-based behaviors. It diverts a company from opportunities, focuses on the past, promotes conflict, and drains energy from the organization. Using a table from What Happy Companies Know, let’s compare problem solving with opportunity seeking:

Problem SolvingOpportunity Seeking
Near TermLong Term
Narrow definition of problemBroad definition of problem
Easily slides into fearMoves to higher consciousness
Promotes conflictPromotes cooperation
Works best with one causeWorks with multiple causes
Looks backwardLooks forward
Tends to find symptomsReveals underlying reality

Problem solving has its place, however, businesses can achieve greater success by shifting to opportunity seeking. We assume that when we fix a wrong we create a right. Not always true. When you look for problems, you will as you might expect, find problems. And, when they are found, they are often bigger, “badder” and more numerous than suspected.

As shared in What Happy Companies Know, the classic example of misdirected problem solving is the case of the company spending a fortune on improving their customer service without finding out why their product is so hard to use. Or, the business that spent an entire year trying to determine why its customers were not upgrading to the latest version of their product; just to find out that their customer base could not afford this twice the price upgrade. Reacting to a symptom and blaming everyone from the technical staff to sales and marketing instead of determining the underlying issue, they wasted a full year. They could have been developing a lower cost model for their current customers and a marketing plan directed at a segment that could afford the newer upgraded model.

This scenario is not uncommon. By the time the problem is analyzed and a solution formulated and delivered, the situation has changed and the solution is obsolete or irrelevant. With the previous example, the solution was irrelevant from the start, but it created an even bigger issue. The conflict evoked blaming and blaming caused counter-blaming; which impaired productivity and the social unity of the company so that future product efforts suffered as well.  Overall, problem solving creates a huge opportunity cost. 

In general, you are better off analyzing your three big “wins” to determine the factors that led to success and then replicate those, rather than dealing with “losses” to see what you did wrong. You have only so much time to dedicate to business strategies. Spend it wisely on constructive, creative and inspired innovation.

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