The Problems Versus Opportunities Conundrum

“What is the Managers job? It is to direct the resources and efforts of the business towards opportunities for economically significant results. This sounds trite – and it is.  But every analysis of  actual allocation of resources and efforts in business that I have ever seen or heard showed clearly that the bulk of time, work, attention and money goes to ‘problems’ rather than to ‘opportunities’, and secondly, to areas where even extraordinary performance will have minimal impact on results“.  (Peter Drucker May 1963)

Even though the above was written by the great man in 1963 it is as appropriate now as it was then.

In fact, the speed & volume at which people can now communicate and get immersed in their ‘problems’ has been significantly expanded.

I recall listening to a senior manager, for the second conversation in succession, complain about a member of his team’s ‘inability to get a report right’.  You could hear his energy dropping just thinking about this employee.

Rather than dazzle him with some clever coaching wisdom on how to handle the ‘imperfect’ employee, I asked him ‘how much attention do you want to give to this John?’ It went quiet. ”Not half as much as I have given it so far – given the difference it will make to my personal accountability’s!” He responded.

People are always their own best coach given time and space to confront their situation.

A reality check. EVERY good business (and manager) still ticks along quite nicely even though it has its share of problems.  There is of course, a caveat to that and it’s a formula.

As long as the opportunities being created are greater than the sum of the impact of the problems. 

Most of our problems I’d suggest, do not warrant the attention we give them (given the bottom line impact) when we balance them up against the economic opportunities we COULD create  – if only we could free ourselves up from being problem focused.

Many of the people I work with are extremely intelligent and efficient problem solvers. Except… that is not what most of them are paid for. They are paid to create opportunities greater than the sum of their individual cost as a ‘human resource’.

Interestingly, the unspoken reality for the corporate employee is that they can mainly ‘get away’ with divesting much of their energy and attention on problems – of which, there is an unlimited continuous supply!

Consider the entrepreneur. Take me for instance.  I can’t afford to have problems (although I do). I need to have processes handled by a competent team that has me be a ‘problem free zone’.  If I am not focusing my attention on and generating ‘opportunities for economic results’  – at some point I won’t get paid at the end of the month and the children will have to live on beans and rice.

I wonder what would happen if the corporate executive had to go home and tell the spouse “Sorry darling, I did not get paid this month as I spent most of my time resolving that irritable but minor IT issue, dancing round my colleagues ego, sorting out the office furniture positioning, producing the 34th draft of the company structure and the 75th draft of the mission statement?”

Occasionally, I ask clients (or myself) to go back over their diaries and categorise whether the activities they have been engaged in over the last week were problems or opportunities.   Coyly, its not uncommon to report back 80% and 20% respectively. Just check out your schedule last week and see what you come up with in the problems / opportunity ratio. Then decide whether you think that is the best way to expend your talent and energy.

So what is going to take to be an opportunity focused based leader or manager?

Get the cost and value of your attention.  What is the cost of me being engaged in a £5 an hour problem? (i.e. doing the work of someone else who is more appropriately salaried to deal with that level of work). It’s the opportunity cost of not doing great work with the same time at £1000 an hour value. And here is the knockout punch:

In its truest sense you cannot solve problems and create value at the same time.

Solving problems only takes performance levels back to where they were.  It’s a bit like twisting your knee skiing and then fixing the problem with physio; once you have recovered you will only be back to the level you were pre-twist.  (To get what I mean about being a problem free zone -you would be better continually investing in the ‘ski school process’ to eliminate potential problems by becoming a more competent skier).

We ♥ Problems! Admit it. Alas, this is also one of those times when we have to tell the truth to ourselves. WE LOVE PROBEM SOLVING!!  Blokes especially get off on fixing stuff – it’s a cultural thing, it’s in the genes, its social conditioning and an expectation. Its familiar ground, it’s in our comfort zone. It’s a technician thing.

Perfection versus Progress.  The big thing that workers are now  getting out there is that they could fill their schedules 24/7 with problem solving work and that the strive for perfection will NEVER BE OVER.  To be opportunities focused we just have to let stuff go sometimes even though it’s not ideal, perfect or gratifying to do so.

Sure you have things to fix.  Just check out the attention that you invest in problems is not bigger than the opportunities you are creating. (And imagine that if you were a sole trader whether you would be a well fed opportunist or a starving to death ace problem solver?)

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Paul Fox

Paul Fox has been active as a Construction Industry Performance Coach for the last 20 years and remains at the forefront of Collaborative Working and High Performance Team Behaviours. He disrupts the status quo of individuals, project and senior teams who want exponentially more output with much less struggle.

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