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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Everything's a Problem

To a practical optimist, everything’s a problem. That’s why that kind of working optimist is so good at solving them.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. Problems are bad, not good. Problems mean things aren’t working, and there’s cost and damage. If you see everything as a problem, you’re a pessimist, not an optimist. Right?

Wrong. Not so for the practicing optimist. When things aren’t the way they should be, this brand of optimist sees opportunity. I can fix that. If it ain’t broke, I can’t fix it and there’s no challenge. If there is something wrong with it, my profession is to find and implement a solution. If I don’t know how to fix it, I know how to find a way to fix it.

Substitute “project manager” for “optimist" and you get the idea. Project management is a system devised and upgraded over the last 60 years or so to move groups and organizations from Point A to Point B. The more demanding, risky and complicated the move, the more you need the project manager.

The birth of practical optimism comes in how it defines what is before it. For example: How do you define the word "problem?" What is a problem?  Here's a definition: A problem is anything that is not the way I want it to be.

Set aside for the moment the self-centeredness of that formulation. Look at the logic that can be built on it. If the problem is something I don’t want, then the solution would be something I do want. Simple, huh? Maybe too simple.

The concept gains meaning as you convert it to process terms. It requires that I thoroughly study what the current situation is. That I uncover what exactly it is about it that I don’t like – and why. Then I must describe and specify just what it is that I want instead.

Interestingly, we rarely know enough about either the current state or the desired one.

One reason problem solving is so frequently frustrated is that we set out with superficial and incomplete information about what we want to fix or improve. Then we fail to clearly and specifically define exactly what it is we are trying to accomplish.

Both original problem and ultimate goal are inadequately known and understood.

So the optimist/project manager, confident that a solution can be and will be achieved, devotes a thoroughgoing and inclusive examination to the current situation, carefully avoiding the temptation to slip into jumping for solutions. This part is disciplined; a deep dive into the now.
Plenty of direct questions are formulated, and plenty of effort is invested in making sure real answers are pursued until they are really answered. All stakeholding parties are fully represented by informed and committed decision makers.

Then, only then, can a credible process of movement from A to B be devised and executed. This, too, demands a well-managed process. All the stakeholders, particularly those in authority who control resources and authorize project actions, must remain adequately connected. 

This entire business is infested with problems, many of which could derail the process and/or poison the collaborative spirit that must drive the entire project. You need an honest, logical process to organize and control a coordinated group effort, foresee and manage risk and, most of all, successfully engage the unforeseen.

One last point, referring back to the admittedly selfish definition of a problem as “Something that is not the way I want it to be.” Any project manager is fully knowledgeable that all the stakeholders are going to act in self-interest. The project manager knows that his/her job requires making sure that those multiple self-interests are aligned to the purposes of the project. A perfect political challenge for an optimistic problem solver.    

Throughout, problem solving is the name of the game. A game that is played well only by optimists who see problems everywhere. And solutions. Good thing.





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