Unless we call ‘problem’ to any management activity, as many people do even without acknowledging it, and, in which case, the organization becomes a machinery of providing solutions, we will have to define ‘problem’ with some critical thinking attached. The cardiovascular system in the human body is a solution for bringing oxygen all over the place, but Medicine would hardily use this definition, a bit equivalent to ‘the brain as a solving the problem of thinking’. This is simply not a credible definition.
Yes, the language of ‘problem’ easily contaminates the narratives. The semantic trick of calling them ‘challenges’ and ‘opportunities’ may be useful at times but it does not solve the primary question: the essence of management and the essence of the organization. I am not talking about the reason for its existence, or the philosophical ‘what is a company for’ ( an old question in Charles Handy’s writings). I am talking about the mental frames that preside and override everything we do in everyday management.
This is getting too philosophical in itself, so allow me for a colossal reductionism. There are two types of organizations, the Problem Solvers and the Builders of New
The Problem Solvers produce solutions. They may produce fantastic, beautiful ones. They may be proficient at that. So proficient that, as I have written many times, they not only thrive on problems but tend to create internal ones . They behave like a mixture of management of intellectual challenges, hieroglyph deciphers or riddle competitions, and are composed by inhabitants of an Expert Nirvana. There may be technical problems, marketing problems, scientific problems, etc. But ‘problem’ is at the core of the language
The Builders of New, build new ideas, new concepts, create new spaces in the world. They surprise themselves, surprise the markets, and, in the process, act as a huge magnet for some people. In short, they build new stuff. They may solve problems as well, of course, like anybody else, but would not have this at the centre of the narrative, like ‘the brain is there to solve the thinking problem’.
This caricature in black and white serves the purpose of highlighting the importance of the mental frame and the language. These are important because they will inform everything we do.
I do push the envelope with my clients many times, getting them away from ‘the problem solving narrative’ as the main one. It’s hard work sometimes because they see managers as ‘problem solvers’. I do push to embrace the building narrative, because I know that solving problems will not be forgotten, anyway.
But I am quite fundamentalist about this. If you give most of the airtime to ‘problems’, you will shape a particular organization that may be healthy, and successful, but not necessarily ahead of the game.
It’s a caricature. But all mental frames are. Chose the one you want before the mental frame choses you.
I, for one, choose the builders.