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Do you have a Problem you Can’t Solve?

Glasses on top of notepad with wadded up papers

Imagine that your grandfather routinely shows up with new scratches and dings on his car. Your suspicion is that these are the result of your grandfather’s advance age and likely his worsening eyesight. To help him out you pay to get the scratches buffed out and the paint chips replaced. 

Did you solve the problem? 

Well you certainly solved a problem, but not the core of what was causing the issues to begin with. To really solve the issue would require a conversation that wouldn’t be comfortable, likely testing to confirm how safe your grandfather’s driving is and possibly resulting in you grandfather losing his license. Which would result in him losing his independence. 

How many times have you seen this pattern in your life? At work?

Think of how many problems are “fixed” by sending someone to training, only to have their behavior continue. Or how many cultures are defined by simply slapping up words on a wall only to have the dysfunction persist.  

We tackle part of the problem, but don’t solve the real issue at hand. 

One of the biggest failures of leadership is to not properly diagnose the problem you face. 

Then when you try to solve it, you use the wrong tools and don’t get the results you want (Heifetz, R., Linsky, M., 2009). As a leader this could be an issue with a process, a product or with people. 

How do we get better at diagnosing? I’m so glad you asked. 

We must identify if we are facing a technical problem or an adaptive challenge. 

Technical Problem: A problem that can be solved with know expertise. 

While the solution is known, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy to solve. The main factor is that there is likely a limited number of solutions and it can be solved with someone with authority or expertise. 

Technical solutions:

  • Taking medication to help with blood pressure

  • Upgrading Microsoft

  • Designing a marketing flyer

While we experience challenges in the organization that can be met by applying technical expertise, we also face challenges that require people in the organization to learn new habits, attitudes and values.

Welcome to the world of Adaptive challenges. Where we leave the certainty and simplicity of the technical and step into the complex and uncertain world of Adaptive Challenges. 

Adaptive Challenge: A challenge where the solution is unknown and requires a change in behaviors, mindsets, or ideas.

Unlike the Technical Problem where we can leverage existing knowledge, Adaptive Challenges requires experimentation and testing. And it’s going to take time. This is where we find that people become resistant to change. They want the solution to be easy and natural. But adaptive challenges are just that: challenging. 

How do you know if you are solving the wrong problem? If you have tried multiple technical fixes and still haven’t solved the issue. 

For example, I once worked for a company that had a very brash and offensive leader. The solution: they sent him to a day-long workshop on communicating appropriately. Did his behavior change after attending the course? Of course not! It was a technical solution to an adaptive challenge.

Another example: it never failed that during my annual reviews, I was told to work on my project management skills. Solutions were thrown my way such as read a book, take a class, or just “do it better!” These technical solutions were not going to solve anything. Because my adaptive challenge is that I have ADHD. And so, I’ve had to work experimenting, building new behaviors, figure out how to compensate, come to terms that I need other people to support me, etc. This has taken years and is still in refinement. 

Next time you are struggling with solving a problem, ask yourself…

Are you solving the right one?

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