Trading problems and progress

Difficult problems presented by life don’t go away when we make a big decision or two. Instead, our decisions just enable us to trade one set of problems for another.

Progress, then, is all about trading problems we don’t like working on with problems we don’t mind (or even enjoy) working on.

No problems isn’t an option. Better problems is.

Explaining problems better

Here are 5 questions I’ve been thinking about a lot as I seek to explain problems better (no shortage of ongoing issues :-))-

1. What is the problem?

2. Where does it lie?

3. Why does it exist?

4. What could we do about it?

5. What should we do about it?

I’ve been finding it helpful to just write out my answers to these questions and then rearrange them in some version of “Situation-Complication-Solution.”

The principle here is to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process. And, the first step to separating the thinking process is ensuring the thinking is done in the first place.

(H/T Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle for recommending these questions when approaching problem solving)

Throwing money at problems

In the past 2 seasons, Jose Mourinho, the manager of Manchester United Football Club, has spent upwards of $400M in recruiting new players. And, his predecessors had spent an additional $400M over 3 seasons (take a moment to let those numbers sink in). But, he wanted to set things right.

While there has undoubtedly been some progress in the past two seasons, watching the team play has often been a joyless affair of late. A recent article described this well – If a team reflects the personality of its manager, then United need help because Mourinho’s demeanor and personality since arriving at Old Trafford has been anything but the bold, courageous and charismatic that the club demands. It has been downright miserable and tetchy.

After a relatively mediocre season, he has reportedly asked for an additional $250M to spend over the summer. His response is simply to throw more money at the problem to make it go away.

However, money doesn’t make all problems go away. Having a certain amount can help with a few problems, sure. But, throwing money at your marriage doesn’t a happy marriage make. And, good luck trying to spend your way into happiness.

And, more importantly, money can never be a substitute for good leadership and a great attitude. Some of the best funded teams fail because they approach problems with poor intent and attitude.

Improving our attitude remains one of the best ways to improve our performances.

Involving others in solving problems

There are pros and cons to involving others in solving problems. There are two quotes that represent both sides of the argument. The first is “many hands make light work.” And, the second is “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Both of these quotes focus on the work itself. And, they’re both right depending on the context.

However, of late, I’ve found another interesting benefit when involving others – luck. Sometimes, solving problems requires a bit of luck; it involves an accidental find or a flash of insight that cracks the problem. And, over the past few months, I’ve found myself in situations where a little bit of extra luck went a long way in solving a tricky problem.

Every once a while, it is better to be lucky than good. And, when we feel we’re running out of luck, involving others can help turn the tide.

Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.

No panacea

When I hosted my blog on Blogger, many stopped to let me know that WordPress was better. It had better search indexing, better this and better that. So, after many years of deliberation, I switched. After around 20 hours of effort that involved troubling a close friend, we were finally up.

In the 5 months that have passed, I have actually had more troubles with WordPress than I had with Blogger in many years. The first was not WordPress’ fault. In the process of migrating, I lost 80% of my feed readers. The next few definitely were. The latest issue is around my mobile site heading to some weird Russian site on Android devices. I’ve deactivated the mobile plugin and am hopeful that will solve the problem (please let me know if it doesn’t).

That’s not to say WordPress was a wrong decision. All things considered, the decision making process was sound and I am convinced it was the outcome of a good process. I am focused on the process and not the result. Yes, it has had it’s issues but it only goes to illustrate a key principle – there is no catch-all solution to all problems. There is no panacea.

Every move you make opens up new sets of problems. That’s just life. Don’t go in expecting all those past problems to be solved. Some of them might well solve the old problems but the chances are high that new problems have been created. C-suite executives know this too well – they execute one change program after the other to remove problems that never seem to go away. The problem is, perhaps, not in the program but in the expectation.

There is no panacea. There will always be challenges. The sooner we embrace that, the better for us.