Friday, October 27, 2020
Problems, Predicaments and Sleight of Hand
How many times have you heard organizational types talk about the need for problem-solvers? Or spout clichés about “dealing with the problems that confront us in this competitive environment?” Or saying that they “face many problems, which we will overcome, as we have overcome those in the past?” The sad fact is that problems are not the problem, so to speak. What really causes leaders and managers difficulty and heartache, not to mention most of their failures, are predicaments.
A problem, properly speaking, has a solution, You may not know what that solution is, nor even how or where to look for it, but you can be reasonably confident that it exists—somewhere.A problem, properly speaking, has a solution, You may not know what that solution is, nor even how or where to look for it, but you can be reasonably confident that it exists—somewhere. Science has solved many problems and will likely solve many more in years to come. Technology has also solved some of our problems, such as how to handle vast amounts of data; how to transmit messages nearly instantly to anyone, anywhere in the world; and how to wake you up with a cup of coffee ready made, when you can’t afford a servant to make it for you, and your partner tells you to go jump in a lake when you hint that it might be his or her role to make it. Problems have solutions. If you characterize a manager or a leader as a problem-solver, you are saying that he or she is adept at finding and applying the necessary solution to deal with various workplace problems.
Now that’s a very useful skill, but it will only take you so far. While there are, indeed, many problems to be faced in the world of work, the most difficult, the commonest, and the most intractable problems are not problems at all, because they have no clear, graspable solution. They cannot be “solved” by any technique. They are not problems. They are predicaments.
. . . the most intractable problems are not problems at all, because they have no clear, graspable solution. They cannot be “solved” by any technique. They are not problems. They are predicaments.Take the “problem” of succeeding in a competitive market. The way that we usually see organizations try to deal with this is by employing a series of assumed solutions, derived from the actions taken by fortunate companies who achieved success in similar situations in the past. That is why every successful product, marketing campaign, form of business organization, or approach to financing is copied within hours or days of the world registering its success. There is no bandwagon that others will not jump onto in the belief that what worked for others will work for them.
Of course, this approach does not work, either consistently or sometimes at all. If it did, no one would have any problem with competitive markets ever again. Not only does copying others contain the causes of its own failure (what everyone does no longer gives anyone a competitive advantage), but it assumes that what you think led to success (or what the happy organization said it did) actually did so. Most times, success was due to luck and an unexpected coming together of actions and reactions. Not only can no one else replicate it, even the company that was successful in the first place usually cannot repeat their own past good fortune either.
Just about all the fundamental “leadership” issues that beset organizations are . . . predicaments: situations that have no solution now—and never will have one, because they are not capable of being “solved” by any one set of actions.So why doesn’t life play fair and do what it is supposed to do? If I could answer that, maybe I too could become a major guru and live in luxury for the rest of my days. What I can see, however, is that difficulties like dealing with competitive situations—along with just about all the fundamental “leadership” issues that beset organizations—are not problems at all. They are predicaments: situations that have no solution now—and never will have one, because they are not capable of being “solved” by any one set of actions.
Problems remain essentially the same. Predicaments constantly shift and change their details as “solutions” are tried. As soon as one business gains a competitive advantage, others copy it (so it is no longer unique or unusual), while others adapt their own actions to block it. Competitive advantages are, by their very nature, temporary. And since the universe changes constantly in random ways, any source of competitive advantage today will likely become worthless—even potential a drawback—within a short time. Replacing people by machines and computers once gave an advantage. Now everyone does it, so organizations who use actual people in certain areas, like answering customer service calls, find that an advantage instead. Then, with the coming of out-sourcing, the advantage comes from having the phones answered by someone who doesn’t sound as if they are in Mumbai.
Hamburger Management (the process of serving up whatever approach is quickest, simplest, and cheapest) is a curse because it negates every way of dealing with the predicaments of business life, turning each one into a problem for which there must be a known solution technique (even if there isn’t).Predicaments are not solvable. All you or anyone can do is to try to cope with them as effectively as you can. And since any technique you apply that seems to work will very quickly produce a counter-technique, or a copy, or a random change in circumstances, the only two “tools” that remain useful again and again are time and thought: to have enough time to consider the options, plus the ability to reflect on whatever you can know of the circumstances and come up with a creative approach that may help for a while. Even that will fail in time, of course, so there can be no end to the need for either enough time or sufficient creative thought.
Hamburger Management (the process of serving up whatever approach is quickest, simplest, and cheapest) is a curse because it negates every way of dealing with the predicaments of business life, turning each one into a problem for which there must be a known solution technique (even if there isn’t). Like stage magicians and illusionists, Hamburger Managers rely on moving fast to confuse onlookers (and bosses) into believing that what they have just seen is truly magic. There’s no time to think or be creative. Just produce the next quarter’s numbers out of the top hat and get off the stage before anyone asks too many questions. Oh . . . and remember to clear away up the smoke and mirrors on your way.
If you demand impossible miracles on a daily basis, you’ll force people into being illusionists and confidence tricksters. All the other guys will fail and be removed.As I’ve said many times before, I don’t blame these managers. Organizations get the managers they deserve, based on the culture they nurture. If you demand impossible miracles on a daily basis, you’ll force people into being illusionists and confidence tricksters. All the other guys will fail and be removed. Any organization that systematically denies people the time and opportunity to work out how to cope with business predicaments, will cause frustration, stress, and a sense that all that truly matters is to seem to be doing something useful—even if you know that it’s all illusory and based on luck and some creative use of data. Tomorrow you may not be around to worry, and it will be your successor (who will denigrate everything you did anyway) who has to clean up the mess.
An example of a problem (with a solution that can be found) is how to get a certain level of shipments to a customer in a given time period at the lowest possible price.
An example of a predicament (with no solution that is either possible or that will remain useful for very long) would be how to maintain a consistent level of market share at or above 12%. It's a predicament because whatever action you take to make it happen will prompt counter action from others to thwart you; and the market circumstances are constantly changing anyway.
I hope this helps.
Keep reading, my friend.
Very nice piece. I do think the difference between problems and predicaments is not addressed enough; it is certainly underappreciated.
If you are looking for examples of leaders who do NOT lead by "Hamburger Managementm" I suggest you check out our list of recently named Best Bosses. They can be accessed from the tab of the same name on our website. Last month we honored innovative smal business leaders who used progressive, innovative business practices to lead their teams to growth (and, sometimes, merely to keep the business afloat). One example is Timothy Keenan, President and Founder of High Performance Technologies in Reston, Virginia. When three key members of the management team died in a plane crash, Tim rose to CEO and, in the face of adversity, propelled the IT company to its most profitable year the same year.
Your readers may also be interested to learn about our partnership with The Wall Street Journal for our Top Small Workplaces recognition program. We're accepting nominations of exceptional small enterprises until January 31, 2020. The nominations link is on our home page.
Thanks again for covering the sometimes subtle, sometimes widely apparent differences between problems and predicaments. I think all business leaders could benefit by recognizing where their issues belong in that spectrum.
I visited your site and can thoroughly recommend it to readers of this blog. There is much there worth reading, in addition to the pen portraits of good bosses.
Keep reading, please.
However,the 12% market share is a predicament. In order to increase your market share to 13%, someone's market share has to decrease by 1%. There are a fixed number of customers, so in order to get more, you have to take them away from someone else. This makes your competiter upset, so they start plotting to take the customers away from YOU. You can never solve this "problem" because there's no way to make both you and your competiter happy -- so you'll struggle over the customers forever.
There might be predicaments that can be rephrased as problems, though. Suppose you have $1bil in revenue. In order to meet your goal of 10% growth, you would have to increase your market share by 10%, and that's a predicament. If you increase it by 10%, someone else is going to be coming after those customers to get them back.
But suppose you don't state your goal as an increase in market share (a fixed quantity) but as an increase in revenue (a potentially unlimited quantity). You could develop a product similar to yours or related to yours that would convince the same number of customers to give you more money (Like gas stations that added convenience stores. If the same number of people come to your store, but half of them buy 10 gallons of gas AND a Snickers, you've increased your revenue.) Or you could modify or market your product so that more people would want to use it (like hair dye products that now market to men as well as women. Even if you still have exactly the same market share, the market is bigger, so you've increased your revenue.) Even if your competiter decides to add convenience stores or market their product to men, your revenue is still increased.
The entire post reminds me of a quote whose source I cannot remember: "If a problem appears to have no solution, it may be that it is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be dealt with."
I agree with Mark that some more posts on this subject would be helpful -- it's subtle distinction on which there is not much information.
This topic parallels the cognitive-edge.com approach to complexity.
Problems can be simple or complicated.
Predicaments are complex or chaotic.
see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin for a brief summary.
I think the distinction between win-win and zero-sum is a useful one, but it does not always hold true. Some problems can only be solved at someone else's expense; and while the market share example is truly zero-sum, not all predicaments are like this.
For example, dealing with an industry prone to fashion creates many predicaments, since circumstances change so rapidly and unpredictably. But failing to keep up with the fashion hurts no one but yourself. Nevertheless, many predicaments are zero-sum, especially those where there is an element of rivalry or competition involved.
Keep reading, my friend.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.