The Problem is the Solution

August 10, 2007

Every problem is a solution to a set of circumstances – so you could say that the problem is both the problem and the solution.
One of the things I try to do with clients is help them “appreciate” the problem they are having. No, that’s not some new age methodology that doesn’t deal with the issues. It’s more a case of asking them – is there any way in which this problem has truth to it? Most particularly if it’s a problem person we’re talking about. I try to encourage my clients to look at the “job” this person is doing for the organisation first before we talk about what to do about it.
Here are some examples of the work problem people have done in organisations I have been invited to consult to.

  • A technical director in an engineering company made the working life of the sales department “hell” (their words) by refusing to co-operate with them. He withheld his staff, demanded more appropriate briefing, took the sales requests back to his department and sat on them for days holding up the closing of business. When we actually looked at what was going on here, this technical director was seen to be protecting his division and team from an increasing set of demands by all departments that were impossible for his technical team to meet. The technical director was, in fact, offering leadership to his team by protecting them from being overwhelmed by demand. By helping the sales team appreciate the problem they were able to articulate the real problem which was an unrealistic set of sales targets that had been imposed by senior management on both the sales and technical teams and not negotiated with them.
  • The manager of a cultural organisation was increasingly vilified by her board of directors as being “useless” and having “terrible” communication skills. The board never knew what was going on and more to the point this manager wouldn’t take their calls when they phoned. On closer examination it emerged that the way of communicating in this company was informal. The 10 directors on the board would frequently phone the manager at all hours of the day and night sometimes requesting the same information. The manager was in 10 different relationships and each director was comparing notes with the other. It was a fact that she was “useless” and had “terrible” communication skills when you looked at it from this perspective – who wouldn’t be? The organisation had transitioned being a voluntary organisation to a company limited by guarantee with a board of directors. While they had hired a professional manager, the board themselves were still operating like a voluntary group – which meant that the company business was done informally and out of traditional business hours. The director was trying to run the business during the business day and the directors hadn’t settled in to their new roles. By helping them look at the “problem” as the “solution” they were able to openly negotiate a way of working that resolved the tension and achieve what they really wanted.

More often than not, problem people are articulating something in organisational life that others refuse to do. When you’re on your own you sometimes have to shout louder to make yourself heard – the louder you shout, the more problematic you are and the more isolated you become. “Problem” people can emerge for lots of reasons and the person who carries this role may have a personal back story that makes them the perfect candidate for the job. A person’s back story may also be where the intervention is required so knowing when to refer someone on for more personal work is a key part of any consulting in this area. The working environment and context for the issue is of course an essential part of the story as well.
Building a good working alliance with a client is essential if we are going to have that kind of conversation. Organisations have an unconscious life. Because it’s unconscious it’s unseen and difficult and very often threatening to look at and my clients have to trust in my skill that I have some idea of what I’m talking about. But if you can have an appreciative relationship with the problem, then that’s a really great place to start the conversation.

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