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TBM 212: A Problem vs. The Problem
Unexpected time to write today… (I wrote a post about Product-Reality Fit yesterday).
Have you ever been in a discussion about the definition of a problem and found the whole conversation going in circles? You're not alone. Talking about problems is problematic. Consider something as simple (it is not simple) as the distinction between “a problem” and “the problem”.
(Caveat, this post will seem basic for people skilled in RCA, safety science, incident analysis, human factors, etc. though I still think it is important)
Let's start with a statement:
I am stuck in traffic! I'm going to be late for the wedding.
Now let's break it down:
I'm going to be late for the wedding.
—>The undesired event or adverse effect that needs to be addressed
I am stuck in traffic!
—>The contributing factor, immediate cause, or proximate cause that led to the undesired event
Now the story behind the story:
I never seem to plan for the potential of traffic!
I tend just to follow the GPS!
My partner and I have been having trouble managing our time lately.
The traffic keeps getting worse since funding got cut for that project.
—>The underlying factors, root causes, or systemic issues that contributed to being stuck in traffic
OK. Now consider how often these ideas get mixed up in everyday work.
Someone asks for a "clear definition of the problem." Are they talking about the adverse effect, the immediate cause, or an underlying factor? Meanwhile, a person makes a flippant statement like "THE problem is that we have no accountability!" Are they suggesting that a lack of accountability is THE root cause of an implicit adverse effect? Or are there underlying factors contributing to the apparent lack of accountability?
And then my favorite: "It is a leadership problem!" Does that mean that unskilled leaders are the root cause of the problem? Or that a problem exists—caused by something else—that only more skilled leaders (or differently skilled leaders) can fix? Also, who hired the leaders? And who onboarded and coached them? And what about the environment is making it impossible for leaders with more diverse leadership styles to thrive?
I know these distinctions may seem incredibly pedantic, but they aren't! Companies move massive sums of money, energy, time, sweat, and tears based on their shared understanding of "problems," yet the language around "problems" is often flawed.
I have a theory about why this is the case.
Most conversations about problems (and causes) are negotiations—negotiations about identity, reputation, controlling the narrative, and spheres of influence and control. People look for the "definition" they can live with and process. Deciding how much to constrain the collection of root causes—from one cause to a whole graph of related causes—is as much a political (and cultural) decision as a factual or solution-oriented one.
So what can you do about it? One place to start is being crisp when you talk about problems. Lead by example. You may not be able to surmount the inertia discussed above, but at least you can help move the conversation forward.