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What's The Problem?

By Paul Glen

Those of us in IT tend to see the world through the lens of problems and solutions. Our entire work lives are devoted to solving problems. One after the other, we knock them down.

This habit tends to start early in life. In school, we are presented with math problems -- and we solve them. At home, we are given toys to play with -- and we disassemble and improve them. We are given broken computers -- and we fix them. We are rewarded for our ingenuity.

These problems and solutions bring with them an emotional boost, too. What can beat the satisfaction of solving a truly challenging problem? Who doesn't love being the great hero saving Aunt Sadie's precious files from oblivion? At the end of a particularly thorny problem, don't you just imagine yourself spiking the code in celebration, as if you'd just caught a game-winning pass?

Problems have wonderful motivating features. They are compact and finite. They start with a challenge -- a call to action (or at least to thought) -- and elegant solutions signal triumph. We are conquering heroes. We stand on Olympus with the gods. We solve problems.

If you need evidence of how prominent problems are in our thinking, just look at the marketing materials for almost any software package or consulting company. They all bill themselves as your "solution" to something: "eBragidocious, your customer solution." "JJG Solution Providers." "iZap, your e-mail solution." Marketing people don't put that stuff in the brochures by accident. They know exactly where our emotional hot buttons are and how to push them.

But for people so attuned to problems, we tend to be remarkably inarticulate about them. Very smart and accomplished people call me all the time, and the conversation goes something like this:

"Can you help me?" someone asks.

"I don't know. What's the problem?" I reply.

The answer is almost always something like, "Our management team needs a facilitated retreat." Or, "We need a training program on communications." Or, "We need a new project management process."

And then I have a problem.

Why? Because none of those things is a problem. Those are all proposed solutions to some unknown or unarticulated problem. And I have to come up with some polite but probing questions to try to understand what's going on.

Whenever you ask someone, "What's the problem?" and the response is phrased as the absence of some solution, you can be fairly certain that no one really knows what the problem is.

There are good reasons why this happens, none of which is that people are stupid or unobservant. The reasons range from fear to hope.

Fear: For most people, problems are uncomfortable things. They are dark, mysterious, threatening things. They have all sorts of unwelcome implications: "If I have a problem, there must be something wrong with me." When we sense a problem, the natural reaction is to want to do something about it, to make it go away.

But that often leads to making big leaps, skipping thought and going right to action. It's easy to hop from the symptom of the problem right to a solution without carefully considering the nature of the problem.

"John didn't find out about the late shipment until it was too late to do anything about it, therefore we need to send our managers to communication training." Or, "Sandy, that newly promoted manager, said some really hateful and unproductive things to her staff at that last meeting, so we'd better get her some coaching."

Hope: At the other end of the spectrum are imagined realities, vague Utopian musings of a better future. These can be driven by truly extraordinary visionary ideas about transformations of organizations and strategies. Sadly, they are too often the result of a brilliantly conceived marketing program for some sort of minor technical gewgaw foisted on overwhelmed managers.

As experts in problem solving, our responsibility is to recognize and expose this sort of fuzzy thinking. As service providers, we help our customers best when we ensure that we are solving real problems rather than filling orders. As leaders, we must remember that work has the most meaning when all concerned know toward what end we strive. Absent solutions are never problems, and as an industry, we must stop acting as if they were.

About the Author:
Paul Glen is the author of "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2002) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps clients build effective technology organizations. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to http://www.c2-consulting.com. He can be reached at info@c2-consulting.com.

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