What Is A Problem?

October 7, 2022

We all have problems, don't we?  How do we know, however, whether we have a real problem or not? 

The first condition for determining if we have a real problem is that it has to be a result or a process that is controllable by us. If it's not controllable, it's not a problem. It's a fact. For instance, it is useless to say, “We have a problem, it's raining.” We cannot stop the rain. 

A problem, to be YOUR problem, must be controllable by YOU.  If something is not as you want it to be, it is not a real problem till you redefine it as controllable. Focus on what you can do about that undesirable situation or event.  Say, “We don't have an umbrella,” or, “The roof is leaking.” What specific controllable component of the undesirable situation you should address?

A banker once told me, “Our problem is unpredictable interest rates.” I said, “That's not your problem. That's the central bank's problem. Your problem is that you don't have a strategy for dealing with unpredictable interest rates.” 

Find out what's wrong with what you can do. Not what's wrong with the world. Take responsibility for your problems; for that, they have to be controllable. 

What else defines a problem?

It has to be expected or unexpected, and desirable or undesirable. Let me explain.

If something is desirable and expected, it's not a problem. You got what you expected, and what you desired.   There is a problem when something happens that was expected but undesirable; You know that if you continue eating what you're eating, you're going to get diabetes. Do you have a problem? You bet, maybe not today, but it's coming in the future. That's an undesirable outcome that is expected to happen that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Usually, people don't address this type of problem because it's pain down the road. It might happen, but it might not happen, who knows? They only act when the pain is already evident and by then it might be too late to fix.

Another type of problem, and this is the one that most people miss, is the desirable unexpected process or result. For example, a company might say, “We planned to make a million dollars this year. Guess what? We made a million and a half!” People rejoice. They have a party. "Wow! We made it!" “We should have a problem like this every day!”  

Unexpected success makes them content. When later the luck reverses itself they are in an undesirable unexpected area. 

The difference between luck and success: Success is getting what you want. Luck is to want what you got, and that you cannot repeat because you're not in control of it. 

If you got a desirable but unexpected result it means you don't know what's happening in the marketplace. You made that one-and-a-half million dollars, granted,  but you could have made two-and-a-half million if you knew what is going on better. 

The last type of problem is the undesirable unexpected. “You planned to make a million dollars, but you lost a million dollars.” Undesirable. Unexpected. Now we have a crisis. 

Unfortunately, most companies don’t start dealing with problems until they are in crisis. “Now! Let's do something about it!” This is totally the wrong approach because by this time it's a postmortem issue. You’ve already lost a million dollars. Now, what are you going to do? 

Catch your problems ahead of time: desirable but unexpected problems and expected-undesirable problems: identify and treat them. Do not wait till they are undesirable and unexpected.  If you treat both of them proactively you will avoid the undesirable-unexpected problems—which can be a crisis.

Desirable-unexpected problems stem from bad planning. You do not have a good enough picture of what is desirable. 

Expected-undesirable problems stem from a lack of control. You know that what you are doing will produce undesirable outcomes but you still do not make a corrective action. 

If you have better planning and better control of your actions, you will not have a crisis like many companies do. 

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes