Ever notice how many adages there are about problem solving? A pet peeve of mine is this one: ”You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
If that’s really the choice, then I’m a compulsive problem maker. When all is well, I tend to invent hitherto unnoticed problems that suddenly need solutions. Sometimes it’s an act of prescience—I anticipate a problem that actually does materialize down the road. Other times I’m just wrong; but by the time the problem doesn’t materialize, most have forgotten about it.
If you’re not like this, doubtless some people in your company are. They’re the ones who are never satisfied, chronically skeptical, constantly prodding and not always the most welcome presence in the room. These people make work for everyone, and curing them isn’t an option.
But for all their faults, the thing you won’t call them is complacent. Being a problem maker is really the entrepreneurial drive at work and the innate need to move forward. We know that a business never really stands still, but either grows or shrinks. As successful as we are today, failure for a small business can be just one circumstance away: a corporate giant gobbles up a competitor and throws gazillions of dollars toward grabbing market share; an unexpected technology breakthrough renders your once-glittering product yesterday’s news (think iPhone vs. BlackBerry in 2007, and maybe a reversal with BB10 today). The reality is, most entrepreneurs balance on the knife edge of failure, so compulsive problem making is simply prudent paranoia at work.
Of course, the downside of this compulsion can be corporate chaos. No business can perpetually disrupt itself; reinvention must come in alternate waves of change and consolidation. This means that, for problem making to work, it must be a managed process. You need to condition your problem makers to seek not only change, but the results of that change before seeking more. Here are some guidelines that I have found useful:
Make big problems, not little ones: People generally dislike the inconvenience of change, so you need to make it worthwhile. Little problems are make-work projects, big problems are game-changers. Game-changing problems require a vision that will ensure that people will give at least grudging acceptance to the idea. Vision is what your problem-makers must learn to articulate because, ultimately, it is also the persuasion needed to sell the idea.
Sell the benefit, not the pain: Solutions are more saleable from people who don’t present them as problems. Most of us don’t need more inconvenience in our lives, thank you very much, and just thinking about problems can be painful. That’s why effective problem makers never lead with the problem but with the ‘promised land’ and desired result.
Everyone already knows that “here” sucks, so start by describing “there”. You can then describe “here,” because now you have a direct contrast in desirability. Now that you have captured the attention of others, follow up with details of your solution. So, the best order to follow is: first, describe the better place to be; next, contrast this with the pure hell of today’s place; then, follow with your solution; and, finally, close with the better place again.
Be the happy warrior: People with scowls make poor salespeople, because we subconsciously worry that if we buy what they’re selling we’ll end up like them. You can’t sell unhappiness. Yet, too often, the mindset of problem-making is disgruntlement. The most effective problem-makers have been happy warriors.
Take Ronald Reagan, for instance. Regardless of what you might think of his politics, he reversed a 50-year liberal tradition in the U.S. by implementing huge, disruptive measures that required Americans to undergo considerable initial pain. Examples: he abruptly let lending rates rise to 20% to kill chronic inflation; he fired the nation’s air traffic controllers, who were threatening to shut down the airways; he started an arms race that the Soviet bloc could not match and put communism out of business. He did all of this wearing his trademark smile, and Americans kept electing him.
The Canadian equivalent would be Jean Chrétien. The 1993 program to balance the federal books in seven years introduced Draconian cost-cutting and all the pain that goes with that. Result? The folksy “petit gars de Shawinigan” achieved his goal while persuading Canadians to back him in three consecutive majority governments.
Don’t tag problem makers as problem makers: (Only PROFIT columnists get to do that!) Describe them as “innovators,” “change agents” or “just naturally proactive”—anything but what they really are.
Set your problem makers free: Complacency is the cancer of any business, so make sure your problem makers know it’s OK to make waves. Sales going too well in your services company? Better open that manufacturing division. Too much growth in your U.S. market? Time to open that Brussels office. Finally got finance and accounting running smoothly? Better move invoicing over to Salesforce.com.
There is always something to do and always a way to shake up your business. The time to worry is when you stop.
Randall Litchfield was the editor of PROFIT Magazine from 1986 to 1990 and has been an entrepreneur ever since. He is most recently co-founder of Inbox Marketer Inc., a Guelph, Ont.-based email marketing services firm, and a four-time member of the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.
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