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


Posted in Results & Execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Thanks for sharing the book. I’ve added it to my reading list.

    I agree with the idea of not labeling a problem an opportunity. And now, I’m going to wrestle with my response to someone raising a problem. I’ll typically say, no such thing as problems, only solutions. I now have to questions and consider the wisdom in this reply. My goal with this reply is to let staff know we can solve whatever it is. Thus relieving fear of bringing problems. Now, sometimes our solutions have been drastic, like firing someone, closing an activity area, canceling a hugely promoted event, etc. But, I might need a rewording of my auto-response. Maybe something like; “Every solution is just waiting for it’s problem.” “No worries, every problem has a solution.” ???

    Karin, I’m not sure I can keep reading your blog if it’s going to convict me to improve my daily leadership….oh wait….that’s exactly why I read your blog.

  2. Eric, thanks so much for all of your very careful and insightful responses. I hear you. Relabeling problems in new terms seems to me done by most with the best of intentions. Your current approach sounds quite productive. Of course, I like your new phrasing, “every solution is just waiting for it’s problem” too. Sounds like you’ve got a brewing blog post there.

  3. I was in the software sales world when I first heard the phrase “challenge.” I remember a pre-sales demo jockey answering a prospect’s question on how our software could solve their problem. The fact of the matter was the software fell short in that area. So he responded “the challenge is” blah blah blah. He was trying to say the prospect needed to change their process to adapt to the software.

    I’ve stopped using challenges and gone back to saying problems. Tell it like it is.

    • Steve, oh I’ve met that sales guy… many times. Of course thats a whole other post in the making…. Yes, I think the word “challenge” is often used in a similar way. Thanks for deepening the conversation with your experience and insights.

  4. Good and welcome thoughts. Needed by all who lead or who influence those who do. Clear and direct creates channels of process. Finds problems. Creates solutions that actually work. There is movement forward. Thank you for your creative consistency. Most encouraging.

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