The Problem With Opportunities

When I first read Karen Martin’s book, The Outstanding Organization, her definition of a problem versus opportunity stuck with me.

“In recent years, it has become popular to avoid the word problem in organizations, recasting it instead as an opportunity for improvement. While proponents of using more positive terms are surely well meaning, I think they’ve got it entirely wrong.”

If you are regular reader, you now know why I needed to meet her.

I asked Karen about the real risk of calling problems “opportunities.”

She explained that when a problem is labelled as an “opportunity”, the “urgency is lost.” It feels safer, like something good we are moving toward not something bad we need to overcome as soon as possible.

Leaders in great organizations do both. They create a safe environment for surfacing today’s problems, as well identify opportunities that are likely to surface as they move toward their desired future.

I’ll pause here.

  • Are you encouraging your team to surface problems?
  • How do you react?
  • Do you sugar coat the problems you surface?

“So why are people reluctant to surface the real problems in organizations?”

Karen’s theory? A lot of our fears are grounded in our first experiences with surfacing problems with teachers, parents, or even early bosses. And as life would have it, many of those first experiences were with people who are not “emotionally mature,” and reacted negatively. It’s much easier keep your head down, stay the course, and not elicit a potentially negative response.

“So what about TQM and Lean and Six Sigma programs. That should help address problems, right?”

“Efforts at improvement such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, or Lean may look like they produce positive rsults initially as you straighten some of your pillars of execution, but with a cracked foundation, the pillars start to topple again.”

Her suggestion, don’t treat improvement as an isolated program. The primary preparation of blackbelts should be about becoming “competent coaches” to spread the culture and methodology throughout the organization. For most blackbelts it’s about them “doing,” we need to shift that mindset to helping them become great teachers and coaches.

“What makes you skip to work? 

Of course I had to ask my usual question. She shared,

“I’ve seen first hand that work doesn’t have to be so hard. People can and should feel good about their contributions. There’s no reason for work to deplete people. Helping organizations (and their people) get closer and closer to the goal of being excited to come to work every day makes me skip to work.”

Excellent. Skipping is contagious.

Author, speaker, and consultant, Karen Martin, provides practical strategies and tools for building an Outstanding Organization. The Outstanding Organization: Generate Business Results by Eliminating Chaos and Building the Foundation for Everyday Excellence is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon