A problem equals an opportunity to improve, so open up and seek out issues that are holding you back.
What problems exist in your own working life? What problems face your business or customers? What’s stopping you or your business from being more effective, productive and successful?
Proactively searching for problems can create opportunities to improve yourself or your business.
But often, people don’t like to admit they have a problem. So in a personal context, simply pausing to ask and honestly answer the question could be half the battle. What’s your problem? The answers may be obvious – sources of frustration you encounter on a daily basis. Or you may need to dig deeper, by systematically reviewing your working life and exposing problems, or asking others for feedback on how aspects of your job role or behaviour can create problems.
At times you may unwittingly deflect the responsibility for problems onto others. Objectivity is therefore important. Be open and honest when considering the root causes of problems. And whoever is to blame, remain positive and remember that a problem identified equals an opportunity to improve.
The same focus on openness and seeing problems as opportunities can be important in an organisational context, where a team rather than individual effort can more effectively highlight problems. Managers often encourage a proactive approach to problem solving, saying: “Don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions”. But an HBR article suggests this approach could result in problems being overlooked, because some problems – particularly the biggest ones – may not have obvious or easy solutions.
HBR suggests that a “culture of improvement” should be fostered, which “makes it safe” to bring up problems. One example of which can be seen on Toyota’s assembly lines: workers are instructed to pull a cord when they see a problem, which summons a manager to look into the problem immediately. Such an approach can be easily extended beyond the assembly line: in any organisational context, businesses can benefit from encouraging employees to find and expose problems.
A collaborative approach may also be important when identifying problems that customers face. For instance, customer facing employees may have the best insights into customer problems, issues or challenges. By working together, problems can be highlighted, from the bottom up, and given the management attention and business resources they need to be solved.
Encouraging employees to both identify and ‘pull the cord’ on problems represents a key first step towards business improvement and innovation.
The obvious next step might be to come up with ideas to solve the identified problems, for which there are numerous approaches, from generating ideas from within to creative thinking approaches such as Edward de Bono’s ‘Parallel Thinking’ and ‘Six Thinking Hats’.
But before you start generating ideas, you may need to prioritise problem-solving. When doing so, be careful not to shy away from difficult problems; you never know, creative thinking could inspire ideas that overcome seemingly unsolvable challenges. Conversely, don’t overlook quick wins, the sum of which could add up. Either way – remember not to focus solely on ‘internal’ problems; ultimately it’s problems you can identify and solve for customers or potential customers that result in more sales and profits.