How do you look at the problem?

Over years, I have learned a lot of things but one of them that I consider as the most important is the way I look at the problem. I see this as a critical leadership quality.

(I am clubbing “How do you define the problem” into the word “looking at the problem” as well)

This seemingly common sensical skill of looking at the problem starts at the most immature phase of saying “A problem is a problem – there’s no other way of looking at it“. Its a thorn. This is the stage where we are clueless about how much the problem itself can be important.

Then it progresses to “Give me a problem and I will look for the solution“. This is the stage where you are solution focused. Its a fire to be doused immediately. You want to quickly move away from the problem to action.

The next stage is the “Within each problem lies the opportunity“. From this point on you start developing some semblance of respect for the problem itself. You start raking the problem for the opportunity instead of looking at it as a fire to be doused and forgotten.

And finally, we realize that the “Problem is an opportunity to understand“. This is the highest level of maturity. You realize that every problem is a real life situation that needs deeper understanding. You develop perspectives and adjust your view points. Problem becomes a teacher.

In the first phase, a problem is seen as an irritant. In the second phase, you look at it as something that should be immediately “managed”. In the third phase you look at it to see if it can lead you somewhere and in the last phase, problem is seen as an opportunity to develop an understanding.

I have gone through all these phases. Current management techniques focus on 2nd and 3rd stages – but hardly does anyone learn the 4th stage. It comes from experience (and facing lots of problems :-))

It is critical for us to appreciate the difference in how we look at the problem. In today’s world of Google and globalization, there are million solutions that can disorient us. All of them look tempting but each comes with its own hidden issues. Solutions also shift. What works today will not work (or become obsolete) tomorrow. Chasing after solution is not the answer. It is in developing clear understanding of the problem that separates the wise from the novice and lead us to that one right solution.

PS: Can more than one stage apply to a problem? Yes, many time you have to fire-fight (2nd stage) but it needs to emanate from the understanding – otherwise we haven’t learned anything from it.



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  1. jagannath says:

    how do we look at a problem is similar to how do we look at a glass with water….half empty or half full. one's attitude plays a very important role in how one looks at a problem. having seen a huge variety of leadership styles..all i can say is that.
    1. what every organisation/boss wants is a person who feels he is a part of the solution and not the problem
    2. nothing succeeds like success..a successful person generally is a good leader..else he wouldnt be there in the first place.
    3. attitude determines the altitude. positive outlook lets out positive energy…and takes everything in a positive spiral. very diffficult to go worng from there…one automatically starts seeing oppurtunity in every adversity. and if ur in a negative spiral…then its quite the opposite