When people think of problem-solving, their mind may instinctively jump to thoughts of things that are broken or things that need fixing.
Problem to most people is a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Problem-solving skills help us determine why a thing is broken or a problem that has occurred and how to resolve that problem. It starts with identifying the problem, coming up with options and solutions, implementing the best solutions to overcome the problem and evaluating the effectiveness of the solutions implemented.
Paying a premium for high-quality problem solvers
Consultants (and executives) are paid big bucks to solve problems.
Interestingly, consultants don’t get paid to predict their clients’ weather; they just need to offer umbrellas to people who seem to always need and buying them. They usually make tonnes of money by charging their clients based on value.
Organisations pay consultants to reduce their runaway cost, etc. and take them back to their previous cost levels. Everyone is happy. Things go back to the status quo. Nothing is made better, unfortunately.
In workplaces, jobs that place high importance on “making decisions and solving problems” pay much more. Positions that involve more problem solving, like physician assistants and chief executives, rank higher in terms of pay. Jobs that don’t require much problem-solving, like a tour guide and a waiter, rank lower.
Many CEOs are also paid handsomely for turning around ailing or loss-making businesses. They are not paid for preventing problems. These CEOs are remunerated for fixing a broken thing.
Rather than experiencing the negative impacts of a problem and trying desperately to fix the problem with large sums of money, why not predict and pre-empt the occurrence of the problem before it converts into a real problem? It will cost less and have lower consequences.
Isn’t it better to predict and pre-empt a problem beforehand before it converts into a costly problem?
You would think so. It does make economic and logical sense. But it usually does not happen in practice.
Changing the way we think about problem-solving
We tend to celebrate and reward people who solve existing problems. It is not normal to find someone who can effectively predict the likely occurrence of a potential problem, a known uncertainty, or a risk (a ‘baby’ problem).
Going through the pain of solving a problem rather than predicting a problem is something we ‘enjoy’ doing. We tend to pay large sums of money for that privilege.
There is no glamour in identifying an uncertain event before it converts into an actual problem, unfortunately. No tangible achievements are associated with it.
It takes a crisis to get things done
People will usually focus on fixing things that are hurting them right now. They prefer to solve a real tangible problem or eliminate an existing pain as an achievement under their belt.
Here’s a trivia question for you: Did you have a fully tested up-to-date business continuity or pandemic plan in place before December 2019?
Business continuity professionals will tell you that their clients and employers do not place much value in planning for future, planning for potential business disruptions, or even planning for a pandemic that may never eventuate.
Getting executives to attend business impact workshops, and writing up and maintaining business continuity and even pandemic plans have been a significant challenge pre-COVID-19.
Many pay lip service to being prepared for emergencies. The majority were never prepared for the impact of a pandemic.
Then came the pandemic in early 2020. People were frantically dusting off their business continuity plans (if they had one). They started to review them. But many were caught with their pants down without any plans in hand!
Business continuity planning suddenly became the top agenda item at the board and executive meetings. But it was too late for many.
As I have always said, it will always take a costly crisis for executives to take things seriously!
We have seen businesses paying huge amounts of money to consultants to develop their pandemic responses when COVID-19 was unfolding in front of their eyes.
Many governments were also not prepared for the pandemic, as shown in some of the news headlines below.
A few places, such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, took early steps of containment and mitigation, having institutionalised lessons learned from the 2003 SARS epidemic.
While the USA was ranked the “most prepared” in terms of its ability to respond to a pandemic in 2019 (shown below), it wasn’t the case in 2020! What a stark contrast between reality and perception.
America’s ongoing struggles with the coronavirus have caused tremendous human and economic pain. The pandemic has exposed deep political divisions and a disinformation ecosystem that muddies even the hardest facts.
Despite more than 188,000 deaths (and growing daily!), the U.S. remains fatally divided over how to deal with a pandemic that will surely last for months more, if not longer.
As bad as these last several months have been, it will be foolish to assume that COVID-19 is the worst the future could throw at us.
It is easier to blame others than to take responsibility for inaction
Many commentators labelled the COVID-19 pandemic crisis as a ‘Black Swan’ event. But the reality is that COVID-19 was not a black swan, as shown below.
Looking back at history, we have experienced so many other pandemics in the past that it was only foreseeable that a pandemic was coming, as shown in the diagram below. It was only a question of when not if.
In the Bible, we read that Adam sinned by disobeying God’s command “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17).
Instead of taking responsibility for his inaction by not preventing Eve from eating the fruit from that forbidden tree, Adam blamed God. He said, ‘The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12)
We tend to find excuses or blame other people for our inactions or inadequacies rather than taking responsibility for our actions and decisions.
The good thing that has come out of the pandemic crisis is that governments and organisations have taken business continuity and pandemic planning seriously.
We saw how fast organisations got their technology in place for working from home. Things that took months to do, took only days to fix!
Over time, no doubt, memories will fade. Pandemic plans will get shelved and ultimately forgotten until the next major pandemic arrives. Complacency will set it, as always. Business continuity as an agenda item at executive meetings will ultimately vanish. And the cycle will begin all over again.
Proactive management vs. reactive management
We would rather get a kick in the backside and reacting to an existing problem than proactively preventing a problem from occurring or preparing for it. Organisations and governments would rather experience the consequences and pay big bucks to fix a broken thing than to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
People would rather be complacent and do nothing than to take pre-emptive action on an uncertain event that may likely occur in the future based on emerging trends and signs.
Organisations and governments would rather practice reactive management than proactive management.
- Proactive management is thinking ahead, anticipating and planning for a potential problem, change or crisis.
- Reactive management is reacting to problems or crisis after they have occurred. By definition, reactive management is characterised by the lack of planning or complacency.
As the saying goes, we don’t plan to fail but we fail to plan.
Executives would wait for the occurrence of a problem to apply their problem-solving skills rather than preventing or eradicating potential problems using trend analysis and problem prevention strategies.
We know that potential problems that convert into actual problems can and do hurt the businesses and peoples lives. Unfortunately, we tend to allow reactive management to flourish.
People tended to celebrate solving existing problems over preventing emerging problems from ever occurring.
Fixing a problem after it occurred makes no sense
Let us use crime prevention and employee fraud as examples to show that fixing a problem after it occurred makes no sense.
Example 1 — Crime prevention
Here are some questions to ask ourselves.
Is it better to:
- Beef up resources in the investigation function of a police force than to put our energy and tax payer’s funds to focus more on crime prevention?
- Prevent a crime from occurring than to catch the crooks after a crime has been committed?
- Tell people to secure their property and keep vigilant than to secure a legal conviction of a thief? (It has been reported in the UK that the chances of a theft resulting in a charge have halved, from 10.8% in 2015 to 5.4%, and from 2.6% to 1.3% for personal theft.)
It is without a doubt that it is easier and less costly and labour intensive for us to prevent a crime than to secure a legal conviction of a thief.
Prevention is better than a cure. There is wisdom in this age-old saying.
Example 2 — Employee fraud
US$42bn is the total fraud losses reported by 5,000 respondents across 99 territories about their experience of fraud over the past 24 months, according to PwC’s Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey 2020.
So, is it better to prevent employees from intentionally defrauding their employers than to spend time and money catching fraudsters and prosecuting them in the courts?
Over 40% of all potential fraud has been detected by employee tip-offs. Organisations with external hotlines (a prevention strategy) are much more likely to catch fraud by a tip and experience frauds that are 41% less costly and detected 50% more quickly.