Everyone faces problems. Every organization faces problems. They are just part of life. What's important is how we deal with those problems, whether we learn and grow from them, and if we remain stable and secure in spite of them.
It's easy to let problems pull us down both personally and organizationally, but with some insight into how to turn problems into possibilities, problems can actually propel us to the next level. Problems are indicators that something is changing, that something could be better, that something new is around the corner.
How we engage in problem solving actually influences how effectively we solve the problems. Many people never view them as springboards to opportunities, but rather as necessary evils of life that must be dealt with. Whether we see problems as evils or opportunities depends on the underlying assumptions we bring to the table about them. These assumptions affect how we approach problem solving.
Think about how most people and organizations approach problem-solving. Most problem solving approaches start with problem identification: "what's the problem," "who's the problem," "where's the problem." Then it moves into exploring solution options: "what to eliminate," "who to eliminate," "where to eliminate," and ends up with a solution choice from those options.
Think of the underlying assumptions of this approach to problem solving. The unspoken, which lies most likely within the subconscious, is the thought that something or someone must be fixed. It takes our minds to mistakes, failures, frustrations, and disappointments. These assumptions limit our thinking and actually inhibit our problem-solving efforts because it keeps us grounded in the past. It's easy to get stuck in blame, shame, and frustration with no idea of how to move beyond that.
Start With a Different Set of Assumptions
Approaching problem solving with a different set of assumptions can create a different set of answers. Here are four assumptions that when adopted can lead to new and better solution ideas.
• The first assumption is that what we focus on and the language we use creates our reality. If we focus on what's wrong and we refer to particular people as the problem, that is our reality.
On the other hand if we focus on what's right and refer to particular people as improvement resources, that becomes our reality. Think about what different answers you'd come up with depending on whether you saw people as the problem or the resource. Our attention, language and answers would be channeled quite differently.
• The second assumption is that the wording of the question influences the answer in some way. If the question is "who is at fault," then "who" becomes the focus of the answer. If the question is "who has the skills to take care of this," then the focus of the answer becomes a positive rather than a negative answer. The question itself can discourage and disparage or can encourage and enlighten. Wording questions in a positive way influences our minds to think in a more positive way.
Forget the Past
• The third assumption: bringing the best of the past to the present problem-solving situation is helpful. This is a tough one-it is so easy to rehash the mistakes of the past and hold on to negative perceptions of those whose actions may have created or exacerbated the problem. Paying more attention to what was done right in the past rather than what was done poorly becomes an anchor for launching new and improved solutions based on the tried and true skills, abilities, and resources.
• The fourth assumption is that different perspectives are essential to problem solving. It is easy to get stuck into our point of view and often we can't see our way out. Incorporating others with very different points of view facilitates problem solving. It's easy to turn to those we know and like when searching for answers, but often our familiar circle is not a diverse enough arena to solve tough problems.
Being open to what may at first glance seem unrealistic, particularly if suggested by one you might consider somewhat bizarre, may be just the idea that ends up working. Different perspectives can be exactly what is needed to unlock the solution.
Questions formulated with these four assumptions in mind can help find possibilities within problems. The questions we ask ourselves and the assumptions within them influence our thinking and ultimately the answers we find. Replacing the question "Why do those two departments communicate so poorly with each other," with "How could those two departments communicate more effectively," changes the playing field.
Turning problems into possibilities requires asking the right questions in a positive way, working from uplifting assumptions, and then acting on those answers. Wording and assumptions play a significant role in problem solving.
Barbara Wirtz, M.Ed., is President of Wirtz Consulting. She can be reached at or at 541.344-8213.