The Problem Is Not The Problem
If you want to really help people then the best piece of advice I can give you is don’t give advice. We all love to offer solutions when we’re confided in. However, what we don’t realise is that people don’t want solutions to their problems. Why don’t they want solutions? Because more often than not, the problem they tell you about is not actually the real problem.
Let me give you an example that I often use in my coaching training. I pose a problem to the group and then ask for some solutions. Let’s see what kinds of ideas you come up with to this particular problem.
The Problem in Washington
In Washington, USA, a war memorial was costing a lot of money to keep clean. The problem was the sea gulls. They would mess the roof up which would then have to be cleaned with high powered hoses. It was proving an expensive process. The city elders gathered together to come up with a solution. What kind of solution do you think they came up with?
When I present this problem to my coaching group they come up with some interesting answers. Some suggest covering the memorial with spikes or a netting to keep the seagulls away. Others recommend birds of prey or loud noises to scare the seagulls. What would you recommend? How much would your solution cost?
First ask a question
The interesting outcome to this story is that in Washington they solved it very simply by asking some additional questions. The questions and answers went something like this;
Q: “Why are the seagulls gathering on the War Memorial?”
A: “Because there are lots of spiders which they’re eating”
Q: “Why are there so many spiders?”
A: “Because there are an unnaturally high number of midges which the spiders are eating.”
Q: “Why are there so many midges?”
A: “Because the Washington memorial lights switch on automatically at dusk, which provides perfect conditions for the midges to breed.”
The Best Kind of Solution
Can you see that the problem we end up with is very different from the one we started with? Had we tried to ‘fix’ the initial problem it would have been costly and unnecessary. Now, with just a bit more information we have found the root of the problem. In this instance it was simply solved by switching on the lights slightly later.
Next time you’re approached with a ‘problem’ resist leaping in to solve it. Remember, “The problem is not the problem.” Ask a few questions first and I bet you’ll find an elegant solution that addresses the real issue.