It’s better to recognize problems as being problems instead of clouding the situation by invoking the term opportunity.
The title of this article might seem negative and defeatist, but bear with me. I suspect that if you are a manager, director, or if you have earned the right to have the letters MBA after your name, you’ve probably clicked on to some other article by now. That’s perfectly fine because those of you who are still reading are the people that I’m writing this article for.
The title of this article alludes to a common practice in the business world: framing problems as opportunities. It’s all about shifting the mindset from negative to positive, right? Don’t look at a circumstance or state of events as a problem, so the theory goes. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to surpass a challenge and emerge on the other side with something better. You’re not solving problems, you’re seizing opportunities!
In theory, positive thinking is a critical skill and, on the surface, treating problems as opportunities makes sense from a motivational point of view. A positive attitude must be a key criterion for problem solving, right?
But problems aren’t opportunities. Problems are problems.
Two examples to illustrate the difference between problem solving and seizing opportunity
Let’s look at a couple of fictional examples that explain the difference between opportunities and problems:
Your uncle owns a series of successful, well run McDonalds restaurants. He nets $1.0 million per year and he has a well oiled organization. If you follow his lead, with minimal effort, you can easily maintain his same level of earnings. Buying the franchise from your uncle is clearly an opportunity to make $1.0 million per year for life, as long as people don’t stop eating French fries and they keep drinking carbonated drinks.
On the other hand, the $20 million price tag for the franchise is clearly a problem, especially if you can only get your hands on $10,000. The problem is the huge gap in money that you have between what you have and what you need.
The problem is that you have no idea or no way at your disposal to get the remaining money that you need. The problem is the challenge, the barrier, the hurdle, or the lack of something you need to take advantage of your opportunity. Your problem solving skills clearly need to be focused on getting the money your need.
You need to get a copy of your father’s will to prove that you are the sole heir to his $20 million fortune. However, the safe is sealed by a time lock and you alone don’t have the authority to get in the safe and, worst of all, the lawyers are preventing you from getting access.
Clearly the money within the will is a source of many opportunities. However, your lack of access to the will is clearly a problem.
Establishing the best mental framework for problem solving
Here’s the main concern that we have with referring to problems as opportunities: the mental framework. If you assume that problems are merely opportunities, there will be a tendency to underestimate the challenges that you may face.
If you assume that something is ripe for the taking (an opportunity), you will likely underestimate the number, magnitude, and difficulty levels of the problems that stand between you and the opportunities. We think that the use of the word opportunity lets our guard down too much and suspends our critical thinking skills.
By contrast, defining something as a problem shifts our minds to engage our problem solving skills. Recognizing that something can be difficult will encourage us to look to any or all helpful resources to help find solutions to the problem. This is a good thing. Treating problems as problems is not a negative or defeatist attitude: it is a realistic attitude. Moreover, recognizing something as a problem can help us start looking for solutions.
In short, looking at problems in the right way is the best way to solve problems.
Remember, when you learn about math problems in school, they don’t call them math opportunities. They’re called math problems – for a reason. The good news, though, is that with the right attitude, the right resources and skillful use of problem solving skills, you equip yourself with the best possible chance to finding solutions to those problems.
Image by Martino!
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