All problems are not equal. Some will bite you. Some just nudge you. Those nudges are worthy of more attention.
You will encounter two types of problems, acute and chronic. They have two distinct warnings signs and different methods of solving them. You need to be aware of both types of problems and how to solve them. You may already know about the first type. But knowing how to identify and solve the second type will provide greater benefit for you and your organization.
The acute problem is most common. You don’t need to go looking for it. It usually rears up and bites you on the rear or some other tender spot. The acute problem appears suddenly, gets lots of attention and demands immediate action. Two classic examples are a warehouse fire or an angry customer. This is the type of problem that most people have in mind when they say they are a problem solver.
The chronic problem is less recognized but more important. The chronic problem builds slowly – so slowly that we often get used to the slight discomfort. We even make excuses for it or ignore it. Even if discovered, the chronic problem tends to attract controversy and experts who refute the problem. They claim that there is no proof, ‘that this is not a real problem yet’. We have examples of this in smoking, global warming and stock piling of used tires. Unfortunately, very few organizations hire people to help with the solving of chronic problems.
The existence of the acute problem is irrefutable. In the hi-tech world we could call it digital – on or off. No one questions the reality of the problem. The question is, how do you fix it and how fast can you fix it? It really is more of a fix than a solving issue.
Solving an acute problem takes a tactical approach and centers on damage control. The Titanic striking an iceberg was an acute problem – real, immediate and demanding time sensitive action. There is no question this was important at the moment. The solution demands action. There is little time for thinking and no need for finesse but a high need for quick and noticeable results. In the movie and TV series of the same name, M.A.S.H., they never did fancy surgery – they just saved lives quickly.
Reaction time is important. Reacting to acute problems is best handled with prepared tools and rehearsed methods. There is little time to think. You must react. Firefighters react quickly to a fire because they have practiced their methods. They don’t need to ‘solve’ the problem of putting out fires – they just kick the plan into action. Once the fire starts there is no time to focus on how to solving the problem of fires. Instead the focus is on how quickly can we extinguish this particular fire?
The real danger to every organization is chronic problems. Why? Because chronic problems are the cause of all acute problems and they often are disguised. They are more analog than digital.
An association suddenly loses money, or a company suddenly lays off 1,000 people. When we say ‘suddenly’ it seems to absolve everyone of responsibility. The Titanic disaster was avoidable – yet you could ask,
“Why did ‘they’ let it happen?”
The reality is that nothing happens suddenly. There were decisions or non-decisions and signs along the way before things went over the cliff. We see the signs. We choose to ignore them, or pretend they are no threat. Eventually the chronic problem that we had the most time to think about and most choices with erupts into an acute problem that leaves us few choices and demanding immediate action. The Captain of the Titanic had many choices before he struck the iceberg – few after.
Chronic problems are the root of all acute problems, while acute problems are merely the symptoms of chronic problems. Digging into every acute problem will uncover an underlying chronic problem. Yet solving symptoms, acute problems, often gets the most attention and resources. There is no question that acute problems must be handled. But the reality is that as long as the chronic problem is unaddressed the acute problems will happen again. When we spend time correcting acute problems we are not solving the real problem – we are simply putting a band-aid on it.
The true innovators are those who recognize the chronic problems before they become acute problems. Innovators act to create a new market or take their company in a new direction. The pundits who are rooted in the past and base their popular opinion on acute proof may downplay the innovators’ ideas. The innovators will sometimes be wrong. But the pundits will never be right.
Everything in the history of the software Lotus 123 said they were on course. Yet their best year was the last year before they were overwhelmed by Microsoft with Excel and the MS Office software suite. Once Lotus was hit with the acute problem it was too late. They should have been looking for the chronic problem of computer users wanting to move information between different applications.
If you are busy fighting forest fires, find a way to put them on hold. And more importantly seek out and look at solving the chronic problem behind the acute problems. Make it your responsibility to expose the lurking chronic problems and strategize your attack before it can raise its ugly head to bite you.
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