The Organizational Strategist

December 28, 2010

The problem with problems

There have been many times I’ve encountered client ‘pain points’, corporate problems that need fixing, organizational symptoms that need cures, and other various difficulties or challenges that need to be overcome.  Consulting and professional advancement often takes on an approach that aims to remedy the bad parts of an organization.  There, it takes empathy, listening, and observation to grasp where having a quick impact can be accomplished.  It is often easy to see what needs to change in these situations and find the right mitigation can lead to strong results. 

However, focusing around fixing a problem is inherently limiting.  I call this a “deficit-based” approach or focus.  It is deficit-based because it is looking at something that is underperforming, worse than the norm, or otherwise below the accepted operational standard.  With this kind of deficit-based focus, the optimal solution is to return things to the status quo.  It’s the patch that returns the flow of work back to the expected pace or output.  With a deficit-based approach, the outcome of the consulting initiative will result in returning the flow of business to the accepted status quo.  By defining the status quo as the planned end result, it prevents growth, acceleration, or otherwise improvement beyond the current thinking. 

Our business society is an ever-evolving environment.   It can be really difficult to take time away from delivering or working on an output to revisit the design or original intention.  We are forced to make decisions without knowing all of the information.  Our efforts need to change along with the environment and that means making the most of our efforts. 

When uncovering an area that needs to be changed, approach it as an opportunity.  In any time where a planned change is to occur, take the time to understand the implications of the decisions and actions.  Simply “fixing” the problem will leave the organization as it was in the past before whatever change caused a problem in the first place.  This may mean the organization is obsolete, even with the problem being fixed.  When a computer starts to slow down and eventually whirrs its last hard disk spin, a consumer would not replace the machine with the same model as the original.  The consumer would go out and buy a new computer with improved technical specifications!  Understanding the design, underlying thinking, and assumptions can do much to clarify what should be done for the future.  Additionally, new information, ideas, and possibilities are ripe for the picking.  These are where the opportunities are for the next level to be achieved.  By incorporating new information and design elements, the resulting organization can become much better than what was the “status quo.”  This different approach can take the simple fix into a revolutionary advancement!



  1. What a fabulous observation!

    Let’s debate this a bit though…I’d like to claim the problem with problems is even worse than resulting in a status-quo.

    I firmly believe solutions are often not a linear continuum of problems to begin with. This means that if you draw a line from problem to solution you are merely patching what you can see, but ignoring the real solution altogether.

    A recent client we worked with had a problem in their manufacturing line. A problem orientation solution will simply fix the line. But that’s not where the solution is. The solution in this particular case is in the reason the line wasn’t perfected by the team itself to begin with.

    I love what you outlined here!

    I do think we need more than empathy and observation though. I find there is a limited number of effective neural strategies that when lacking sufficient mastery, are always at the heart of any and all organizational, team and individual problems.

    Thank you for a brilliant post!


    Comment by Reut Schwartz-Hebron — December 29, 2010 @ 12:25 am

    • Thanks for the great comment Reut! You bring up very good points. Many times, the original design or decisions made result in one or more of the opportunities that can be observed. If time is available, going into a deep dive to innovate is great. I outlined a few approaches in this earlier post: What are the neural strategies that you were referencing?

      Comment by Whit — December 29, 2010 @ 8:24 am

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    Trackback by Share On You - iBlog News — December 29, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Hi whit,

    The computer analogy is the great one. Thing that supposed to come with the innovations. However, in some of companies that used to conduct kaizen system around their management would also come with their own innovations through the continuous improvement methods. For example, Toyota. I’d just seen that their methods could increase the innovations as well as the employee’s morales itself.
    The methods are definitely the problem based ones. But they do not stop to looking for a solution as soon as they find one. They keep trying to find the root cause of their problems. And surely it needs a systematic technique which they develop with the problem based perspective. The impact of this was overwhelming. The problem based methods became a culture around the company. And that was the one that I have pointed out in my early comment (@d4uzwax), the culture was very persistent because of the benefits that company got from it was being reproduced within the whole organization.
    So that I come up with my conclusion that every AI practitioners need to be clear with the change strategy, especially the cultural change cause it’s not only about new approach but also a brand new culture.
    That’s all from me.
    Glad to see your thoughts, whit.

    Comment by @absurdaus — July 6, 2012 @ 8:25 am

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