Thursday, February 27, 2014

Focus Not on the Problem…

Executive Summary:
It is a truism of life that our energy goes where our focus is.  If we fixate on a problem, our energy goes into the problem.  However, if we focus on the solution, our energy goes into solving the problem.

The Rest of the Story:
In the last few years, I have had the luxury of sharing a fair number of problem-solving challenges with colleagues and friends in several businesses.  While reflecting upon that collection of experiences this week, I observed a single distinction between those organizations that struggle to make headway against a perpetual storm of broken processes and those that succeed in making things better.

That difference is each organization’s attitude about improvement and where the personnel focus their attention.  Those organizations that are stuck and fixated on problems always have problems that don’t seem to get fixed.  Alternatively, those organizations that focus their intent upon a solution, even if it isn’t a great solution, make strong forward progress and develop a successful habit of solving problems and making work life and business better.

I’ve often said and written that what is true in life is true in business.  I believe the phenomenon I describe is an example.  Pick your favorite sport or hobby.  Somewhere in there is a direct correlation to focusing on solutions instead of problems.

Here are some examples that might seem familiar.  Anyone who pilots a motorcycle, (or slalom skis) has heard the phrase, “You go where you look.”  We are trained to look through the turn to a point down the road, or racecourse, where we want to go and our vehicle goes there under our guidance.  If you look at the ground right in front of you, you crash.

It’s the same in baseball or golf.  In order to be sure to hit the ball precisely, we are directed to keep our eye on it.  If that doesn’t mean anything to your experience, try this one.  When a family member speaks to you while the TV is on, look at your family member.  It will be easier to ignore the TV and listen to your family if you are looking at him or her.

Our efforts are directed, both consciously and unconsciously by our focus.  In the examples I gave above, our focus is controlled by our gaze, but the phenomenon translates beyond just our eyesight.  Therefore, the idea of focusing on a solution instead of a problem should not sound so much like an empty platitude.

The challenge, if we accept the concept, is to recognize when we are fixated on a problem and to adjust our focus.  Here are some examples of things said and done at organizations fixated on problems instead of solutions, to fuel our thought.
  • “I don’t think we can find root cause here.  Can’t we just ignore it and move on?”
  • Conversations among team members continuously revert to complaints or observations about what results the problem produces.
  • Debate centers on what affects the problem has, or how often it occurs, or who is affected.
  • Personnel continuously find ways to work around problems.
  • Personnel talk about how to make a defective part, system, or form, work even though it is defective.
  • Personnel talk about problems or complain about them, but don’t act to change them.
  • Over-analysis:  we keep pulling out tools or holding meetings to find new ways to tear apart or describe a problem, but don’t make a decision. 

Compare those behaviors to these that were far more common in organizations that focused on solving the problem.
  • A definition of the problem is quickly established and discussion focuses on root cause and potential solutions.
  • Debate centers on which solution to choose.
  • Complaining is not tolerated; instead it is redirected with phrases like, “What are you doing about it?”
  • People don’t work around or follow broken processes; they stop and fix them.
  • Personnel talk about what they want to do or are going to do instead of talking about what is stopping them from succeeding. 

The trick to knowing when we are focused on the problem instead of a solution is not so explicit as a list of catch phrases or specific actions.  We must listen and observe.  If our words and our actions center on working with a problem in place, we are focused on the problem.  When our words and our actions center on a future state where the problem is gone, then we are focused on a solution.

To migrate from the former state to the latter, begin with yourself.  Take notice of your own words and actions.  If you catch yourself talking about problems instead of solutions, make a conscious effort and habit to re-state your thoughts, right there and then, to something solution focused.  Do the same for your colleagues and personnel.

Understand that our words and our actions result from our thoughts.  Our thoughts represent our focus.  If we catch words and actions focused on the wrong thing, we can use that moment to redirect the thoughts behind them to a more constructive posture.

Stay alert and observe carefully the words and actions you and your fellow teammates produce this week.  If they seem more focused on problems than solutions, start actively redirecting that focus.  It has been a clear distinction between organizations that solve problems and improve and those that wallow in dysfunction in my experience.  Focus yourself and your organization on the right destiny.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. Alan, another great post, especially the common behaviours in organisations that focus on solving the problem!

    Your post reminded me of what Wayne Gretzky’s father once said to him:

    “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

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