What Your Problem Is NOT... - Next Action Associates

 …Or how dodging misattribution could save your job and your sanity.

istock erasing problems

To solve a problem efficiently – or solve it at all – it is necessary to correctly identify the problem. This sounds obvious. It also sounds much easier than it actually is. For starters, there is a whole family of problems that live completely un-identified, and are simply considered normal.

Some problems, like continuing poverty in wealthy societies, are normalized by simply enduring over time. Others, like the expanding girth of much of humanity – are hidden by expanding the size of everything from clothing to chairs to cars. When your XL trousers and your Ford F-150 are both called the same but are in fact much larger than they were a decade ago it is easy to miss the problem. These are problems that are simply not identified at all. No surprise that they are not solved then.

That is a blog for a different day. In this blog, I thought I’d have a stab at some problems that don’t get resolved because they are mis-identified.

By definition, once people are in one of our seminars or coaching sessions, they have acknowledged that there is a problem. The true nature of the problem is usually less clear. I’ve heard a lot of opinions over a number of years on what the problem is, and I have some thoughts:

What the problem is not:

·         Work – work is fundamentally a good and healthy thing. Anyone who has been out of work for more than a couple of months will tell you that work is a very good thing indeed. Most of us, without the structure and social contact (even with people we don’t necessarily like), collapse upon ourselves in a heap of ungrounded negative expectation. Work is not the problem.

·         E-mail – here too, there has been a lot of criticism for the medium, with what seems like an inverse amount of reflection. The result is often a baby exiting with bathwater, and vague talk of a social media solution. As mentioned in a previous blog, e-mail is simply a means of communicating that is so good that it has gotten a bit out of control. If it goes away we’ll only need a new way to track messages, so e-mail is not the problem.

·         Your boss/the government/etc. – your boss may well be out of control and unreasonable and unfeeling, but the problem is not him/her/it. Until you have your own work under control, you will always live with a vague sense that you could do better, and you’ll be exposed to exploitation of that self-doubt.

So, if those examples illustrate the kinds of things that the problem is not, what is the problem?

What the problem is:

·         Volume and complexity – the work that is left for humans that is not absolute drudgery is becoming ever more complex. This will continue. The algorithms that underpin much of our digital lives are here to stay, and they are eating jobs by the thousands. That is not necessarily bad, but it does mean that increasingly it is not easy to see what to do with much of our work, and if we don’t think enough to reduce the complexity we can quickly get stuck in a miasma of un-do-ability.

·         Too much in our heads – our brains are truly magnificent. They are unbelievably complex and remarkable for things like creation, innovation, and pattern recognition in a complex environment. Nothing better. Seems a shame to waste them as a storage device. They are okay at that too, but they have a lot of competition, and the competition is more accurate and durable. Storing things in our heads is part of the problem.

·         Being ‘always on’ – to build on one of the previous points, the work is not the problem; the incessant worry about the work is a very large problem indeed. Never being able to power down and relax is a problem.

Having identified some possible problems, we can start to discard some possible – but unhelpful – solutions:

What the solution is not:

·         Working 10% more – most of us have tried this successfully, many times, but many never understand that this is a bit of a dead end – sometimes literally.

·         A New Super-Tool – here again, we seem to be a bit like Charlie Brown taking another chance with Lucy and the football: it has never worked before, but maybe this time we can make it work. What didn’t work with the Filofax, Psion, Palm, Blackberry or iPhone surely will work with the iPad, no?

Nope. The tool is a reminder storage device. If the tool could solve the real problem (of volume and complexity) you’d be out of a job (see above).

·         A new job, new boss, etc – leaving them behind rarely helps, because wherever you go, there you are. Most of the problem isn’t outside of you, so you can’t leave it behind.

What the solution is (you might recognise this):

·         Collect – to keep things from rattling around in your head

·         Process – think things through to clarify what they mean for you and reduce the apparent complexity

·         Organise – put the results of your thinking in a place (any place) you trust

·         Review – reconsider and evaluate all of your commitments, once per week

·         Do – get started on the thing that will offer the most bang for your buck, based on what you can do in the    time available at the place you happen to be.


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