Problems Are Good

No, really. I’ll show you why the conventional thinking about problems is not always correct, and how they can sometimes – although not always – be good.

Granted, some problems are bad. For example, the sinking of the Titanic. But not every problem is like the fate of the Titanic.  

It’s also true that many problems are vexing, dangerous, expensive, hard to avoid, prone to repetition and escalation, as well as time consuming.

But here’s where this thinking can turn around: these are the very reasons problems can spur you to think, research, experiment, consult with others, and eventually find a solution that yields important improvements. Just as we recognize that “necessity is the mother of invention,” we can think of problems as the catalyst of improvement. This is what makes at least some of them potentially “good.”

What follows are some ideas on how to milk a fair proportion of your problems for the good that lies hidden within them.

Look for the Lost Value

Just as a glass that’s half empty is also half full, a problem that sucks up time, energy, and money may also offer the potential to release much of that value when you solve it.

For example, if you spend half an hour a day washing dishes, you can reclaim that time and effort when you solve the problem by acquiring a dishwasher. Same with a clothes washer and dryer for laundering your garments.

In the same way:

  • The printing press unlocked the time and effort spent on the problem of making copies by hand,
  • The automobile freed up the time and effort involved in the problem of keeping and using horses for transportation,
  • Refrigeration recaptured the cost and waste of spoiled food problems, and
  • Renewable energy sources reduce the environmental problems that result from burning fossil fuels.

Problems may also point to new value you can create. Think of cell phones, for example: They solve many problems that didn’t actually cost us time and money. But the convenience and capabilities these solutions provide have made cell phones extremely valuable.

The point is that nearly every problem can be seen as a source of waste, and solving it can potentially convert that waste into value.

Look for the Kernel of the Problem

One important way to find the “good” hidden in a problem is to cut through the surface hassles and difficulties to find the essence of what really needs to change. It’s much like MacDonald’s recognizing that it’s not a hamburger company as much as it is actually a real estate company.

For example, the invention of the copy machine solved an immediate problem: the difficulty of duplicating pages of information. But after a while, it became clear that capturing pages of information could provide the basis for scanning and faxing, as well, and could greatly improve the whole imaging process.

The high cost of loading and unloading cargo, one item at a time, for long-distance shipment was initially attacked by stacking individual boxes of goods on pallets, and then later improved even further with the introduction of truck-size shipping containers.

It’s often the case that when you uncover the essence of a problem, you may find many new opportunities and future possibilities.

Look for the Larger Problem

Another approach to recognizing the “good” in a problem is to think bigger. For example, Meta (originally Facebook) began as a vehicle for introducing students to one another at a single college. The idea expanded until billions of people all over the world now use it to communicate with people they already know, as well as with strangers.

There’s probably no better example of the good that can be unlocked by thinking bigger than the world of computers. Originally envisioned primarily as accounting machines for a few very large-scale applications, they have totally transformed nearly every aspect of work and life on this planet, and beyond.

Look for the Long-Term Solution

Since many problems recur, there’s value in looking past any immediate fix to develop a long-term solution. For example, assembly lines often turn out a small proportion of defective products. Factories often employ trained specialists who rework those defective items, one by one, to fix what’s wrong with them. But the longer-term solution is to study the manufacturing process itself to find and fix the specific causes of that stream of defective items.

This principle works in your own life, too. I remember a kitchen sink that kept clogging up in a home I once owned. I unclogged it several times before I took the trouble to take apart the drain pipes. In there, I discovered one piece of pipe with openings that were way too small. I changed it for the correct size and never again had to unclog that drain.  

Look Outside the Box

Perhaps the approach that most often spurs thinking, research, experimentation, consultations, and eventually solutions that yield important improvements is looking “outside the box.”

Questioning the very basics of a problem situation – Why do we do things this way? Are we trying to accomplish the right things? – helps lead not only to immediate solutions, but also to significantly improved methods and goals.

To do more thinking outside the box:

  • Accept the ongoing need for meaningful, helpful change.
  • Search for and consider alternative perspectives and analyses.
  • Question and seek to upgrade currently accepted performance standards.
  • Look for opportunities to apply ideas, principles, and techniques from other industries, situations, and processes.

The plain fact is that solving problems can be difficult, and experimenting with potential solutions can lead to multiple dead-ends and failures. Nevertheless, tackling problems with a view toward unlocking the “good” that lies hidden within them can produce astoundingly beneficial results that would never otherwise appear.

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