Be a Solution Looking for a Problem

Anyone can point out problems. There’s little skill in saying, look there’s a car accident. But, will you stop? Will you do something more than call 911? Will you pull over and try to help those involved? Will you try and keep the area safe and manage other traffic while help arrives? Surely there’s something that can be done to at least not make things worse. In a work context is the person who observes, “darn it, the printer isn’t working” then calls out, “hey boss, the printer isn’t working” valuable? How about the person that complains during a weekly meeting about the office kitchen being a mess with dirty coffee mugs? Do these “observations” help? These are the kinds of statements that make a manager’s brain want to POP. Pointing Out Problems is frustrating for the receiver. Value is not in pointing out problems, but in providing solutions. Better yet, is actually implementing the solution such that the problem isn’t even known.

Our workdays are full of problems. It’s virtually a guarantee that no sooner than when one is solved the next one surfaces. They roll in like waves on the shoreline one after the other almost on a schedule. Problems will inevitably arise which are just part of work life. Flat tires happen. Things breakdown. Hiccups show up. Do you point out problems (POP) or do you solve, help, and heal (SHH)? One’s loud and offers little value. The other quietly is value. Solution providers are what will always be in demand. The ability to see problems and do something about it or at least propose a solution and ask for permission to seek to fix is near or at the top of what a boss desires. If you have the ability to not just point these out, but lean into them and take action you’ll separate yourself and shine positively to the powers that be.

Typically, problem solving is reactive. We’re racing to put out the next fire. A problem is identified and then we spur into action. The bigger the fire, the more valued the fix. We then celebrate those that were first responders reacting to the crisis of the moment. Shane Parrish in an article on the Farnam Street site sets out some limitations related to our typical approach of valuing crisis managers. A downside of this approach is that we avoid looking for and managing little issues. We ignore the dumpster fire and wait until the building is in flames before acting. Alternately, we’re perversely incented to create problems which we can then jump in to solve. Proactively pursuing problems as opportunities to fix is not the perspective for too many organizations.

Parrish, invites us to shift our perspective from that of a passive passenger to seeing ourselves as a captain. If we see ourselves as a captain instead of a passenger, we’re more likely to take action to resolve things instead of letting sparks ignite into flames. Moreover, Parrish suggests, If we see our organizations like a ship at sea, we can appreciate that we’re in this together. On a boat, it’s not so easy to get off. We can’t just walk away if things get rough. As a result, we are on the same ship. Everyone on the boat is at risk where others aren’t proactively putting out problems. Parrish writes, “If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place.”

Unfortunately, the possibility that one won’t be rewarded is sometimes used as an excuse to avoid doing the work to solve the problem. If I quietly go about fixing a problem I find, such that the boss doesn’t learn about it, sure I’ve helped them with their day, but I won’t get any recognition. I’m just taking on work outside of my responsibility and not getting recognized for it. What rational person would do this? I’m not stupid. Those of us who lean to the competitive side may be averse to the idea of working behind the scenes to keep things operating smoothly because we want the recognition. We want to be seen as a crisis manager. We want to be a firefighter known for putting out fires, the bigger the better. However, this is ego evidencing itself and reflecting a short term, selfish strategy for trying to stand out.

If doing a good deed and feeling the satisfaction of fixing something isn’t enough personal reward, fair enough. It’s reasonable to want to earn some good favor as a result of being a fixer. Perhaps, you could take a picture or document the problem you uncover, then detail the fix you implemented. You could then send this to your boss in advance of or as part of a performance review. Additionally, you could ask for peer support in the form of a testimonial that both points out the problem as well as your efforts in solving. You can accumulate your accomplishments in some form to preserve your objective efforts. These can even make their way into your resume and cover letter for future use.

If you’re a leader, consider trying to celebrate a little less those that are good first responders and help in an emergency. Instead, scan for those that are solutions solving problems before they fester and publicly recognize them. By taking these steps, you’ll slowly change the culture of the company helping others recognize that being a solution looking for a problem is the desired goal.

Our goal is to establish ourselves as a joker. No, not a clown or comedian, but the card. When we’re playing poker and the person dealing announces “jokers are wild,” the two jokers become the most valued cards in the deck. A joker can become anything. Anyone that receives a joker has a hand that immediately improves. The joker makes any situation better. A joker is a solution looking for a problem. What can we consider trying in order to become a joker?

Develop yourself in as many areas of your work area as you can so that you can be more than a useful cog in the wheel and become a solution looking for problems. Try to learn more about other’s roles. Lean in to developing an understanding for other areas of the business. What are other people’s pain points? Problems are opportunities. Opportunities for you to show what you can do. Opportunities to demonstrate initiative and leadership. In the early 90s, a rap band by the name of Naughty by Nature released a song which became a hit titled, “OPP.” The chorus of the song included the lyrics, “Are you down with OPP? Yes, you know me.” Well, where the OPP from the song may have been rather crude, is there a different OPP we can get to know? Think of OPP as “Other People’s Problems.” How would your perspective shift if you thought of this OPP as your opportunity? Other people’s problems aren’t a nuisance. It’s where your business growth lies. It’s where you are able to distinguish yourself from others. Adopting the perspective that other people’s problems are your opportunity fosters a viewpoint that looks outwards at others. It is driven by posing the question, how can I help?

Matthew Syed, in The Greatest, writes of a team player observing, “He is the soil that enables the flowers around him to grow and bloom.” That sounds like someone that is a solution looking for a problem. In her book, Pivot, Jenny Blake writes about Impacters. This is her term for those that “love learning, taking action, tackling new projects, and solving problems.” Blake goes on describing Impacters noting, “They are generous and cooperative, and imbued with a strong desire to make a difference.” Blake paints the picture of what the posture of being a solution looking for a problem is as does Patrick Bet-David in Your Next Five Moves. Bet-David refers to entrepreneurs as problem solvers. He writes, “They look at something complex, study it, simplify it, and ultimately find a way to solve it.” Former NBA basketball player Allen Iverson played 14 seasons in the NBA. He was an all star 11 times. He had a long and illustrious playing career. No question, there were some ups and downs personally and professionally during his playing days. Along the journey he earned a nickname which is one that captures perfectly what we’re suggesting as the idea. When he was drafted, as the shortest number one pick ever, by the Philadelphia 76rs, the team was awful. They were basement dwellers. Iverson turned the tide and took them from cellar dwellers to the NBA finals. As a result of his massive and marked impact on the team’s fortunes, he became known as Allen “The Answer” Iverson.  Your career prospects and ability to influence can only improve when you become known as “The Answer” in your workplace.

Too many of us are focused on doing just our job. We are looking to do less, not more, while at the same time complaining about not being afforded opportunities for growth. We should recognize as Seth Godin notes in a blog post, “The chance you’ve been waiting for… it’s right here, right now, today.” The office kitchen that needs cleaning, the printer that needs the ink cartridge changed, or the flaw in a workflow all offer opportunities to become the solution. Godin writes, “Opportunity is another word for a problem to be solved. And opportunity is often there, but it rarely knocks.” Being a solution looking for a problem is taking on the role of ownership within your organization. You’re not reviewing things to see whether they fit within your scope of responsibility or not. You see everything as important. You’re trying to connect the dots and see the whole. You’re not looking for glory today. You see the value of developing a habit of helping not just for your longer term benefit, but because it is fulfilling in the moment.

Parrish writes, “The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative.” Being a solution looking for a problem offers the inverse. That is, the more you take initiative, the more likely you are to rise within an organization. It represents a path to promotion. Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, “The size of the problem determines the size of the person…. You can gauge the limitations of a person’s life by the size of the problems that get him or her down. You can measure the impact of a person’s life has by the size of the problems he or she solves.” Do you shrink from problems or solve them? Do you seek them out or walk past them? Leaders very much appreciate those that are looking out not for their own best interests, but those of the organization.

Regardless of our role, our function is ultimately the same for all of us. It is to be a solution to a problem. Those we respect and admire at home, in the work place, and in our communities are those that offer solutions to problems. The best doctors, lawyers, nurses, mechanics, sales and customer service reps, and other professionals all reflect this ability. Moreover, it’s fun to be needed because you’re known to offer solutions. It feels good to do good. You’re not stymied by situations. You overcome obstacles. You’re not pointing out pain points or poking fingers assigning fault. You’re comfortable taking responsibility for keeping things moving. Having someone say of you that “you’re the kind of person that is a solution looking for a problem” is one of the highest work related compliments you can receive. Your services will always be in demand. Your face will always be welcomed.