How Many Problems Are Not Problems?

When I was at university, one thing that was not so fun was the math problem set. Many a weekend was consumed resolving these. One of my friends pointed out that problems are only problems if you don’t know how to solve them. If you know how to solve them, they are merely questions. That distinction is valid outside the walls of a university too.

Understanding problems

Is it a problem and worthy of action, or is it not? We get confused sometimes.

Bert Lance was director of the Carter administration’s Office of Management and Budget. In the May 1977 issue of The Nation’s Business, he offered a thought that, as common sense, could as easily been professed by Ben Franklin 200 years earlier. The thought is in common use today, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” William Saffire of the New York Times described it as an anti-activist rule. We can all see it is commonly violated in the activist world today. How much does it cost to solve problems that are not problems at all?

At the other extreme, we find problems that are attacked as complex yet have a simple solution. For example, as Harvey MacKay has pointed out, “If you can solve a problem by writing a cheque, you do not have a problem; you have an expense.” Too bad they are not all that easy. Worse, people waste resources and mind space dealing with the inevitable.

The nature of problems

Problems with unknown answers come in two forms. Big enough that you must deal with them and small enough that you can ignore them. The trick is to know the difference.

That assessment itself is problematic. It is the “ignore” part. A problem you can ignore forever is not a problem to begin with. I routinely ignore the traffic problems in New Delhi even though it ranks 5th in the world for traffic congestion. So far no adverse consequences.

All problems are contextual. If you are not within the context, it is a problem you can safely leave out of your efforts. But notice, minor issues that you ignore, but cannot ignore forever, accumulate. Eventually, you have a large bag full of them, and the bag takes on a life of its own. Jordan Peterson contends that stress results from the accumulation of small undone tasks. A bag of small problems is itself a big problem.

Addressing small problems

You cure the big bag of small problems issue by using two criteria:

  1. Can I ignore this forever? If yes, forget it. If the answer is no, then,
  2. Think about it again in a different context; if it were a hundred times bigger, how would I deal with it?

The 100-times bigger problem must be solved. Understanding how you would relate to it at that size will give you insight into how to remove the little problem. For example, excessive warranty claims when you could redesign a part to cure the problem. Then you must act on it and empower systems or people to keep it at bay.

As you do this, you will find that it takes less time than the ignoring method. Remember that the ignoring method keeps issues coming at you while the solving process is done once, done forever. (Well, almost that good)

Once in a while, certainly not every time, facing down the little problem gives you insight into what could have become a big problem in the future. More rarely, it will provide you with insight into an opportunity. The rare occurrence of these will pay you for all the effort elsewhere.

Problem-solving is a skill.

For many people ignoring problems becomes the modus operandi for every problem, big and small both. That seldom ends well. Dealing with little problems gives you abilities that can be applied to more substantive issues.

Good problem solving includes both resolution and the creation of methods to prevent its recurrence.

Good problem solving is timely. That doesn’t mean a solution at the first instance of discovering the problem. You must learn to assess the urgency and the importance. Sometimes problems can be pushed away because of the priority list. Resources are limited. Focus on important. “The most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The bits to takeaway

Problem-solving is a skill that most of us can work on and improve.

Don’t collect minor problems. It occupies your mind in harmful ways.

Everyone has problems. A thought attributed to Mark Twain provides guidance, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”


I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning. I have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at don.shaughnessy@gmail.com.

 

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