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No Simple Solution

As managers, we seem to spend most of our time solving problems. Or at least I do. Though I should know better and would be more rewarded by spending time in leadership, thinking and planning. Sometimes we get trapped by thinking we are trying to solve a problem, but the truth is we are dealing with a predicament instead.

The difference was defined by Richard Farson in his intriguing book, “Management of the Absurd.” While a problem is something that can be solved, a predicament can only be coped with, as it tends to be a complicated, inescapable dilemma. One paradox is that a predicament is made worse often when treated as a problem.

Most problem solvers tend to be found at the lower end of management. Predicaments require more imagination along with interpretive thinking, and these characteristics can usually be the traits of upper management. Whether by intelligence, training or experience, dealing with a predicament demands that we engage in an expanded manner of thinking and the realization that predicaments cannot always be handled in a linear or smooth manner.

A negotiation may be a predicament for which no solution exists that will satisfy all involved. Sound familiar? Each party may have to leave the table being somewhat dissatisfied. Approaching the situation as a problem that may have no clear solution may waste time and distract you from pursuing other opportunities, in addition to squandering resources and incurring astronomical legal fees. You may be doing the best you can to settle as quickly and cheaply as possible and move on.

Benjamin Franklin faced a predicament when he held conflicting thoughts and emotions as he, as a British subject, was loyal to the Crown but at the same time disagreed with the British Parliament and their penchant for taxation without representation. Franklin spent about 15 years in England prior to the American Revolution and wrote extensive newspaper articles during that time addressing the wrongs visited on the American Colonies, while at the same time hob-knobbing with England’s elite in the fields of science, art and literature. Because he retained two loyalties, he was judged as “waffling” in his support for America.

While he was, indeed, caught in a predicament, the USA, which he helped invent through the Declaration of Independence, had not yet been born. Dr. Franklin continued thinking and writing to address the grievances of his American homeland. The dilemma of his loyalties was only to be resolved over a period of many years and the continued intractable repressive policies of Britain toward the American colonies that finally pushed him to be firmly established as an American citizen.

When the George Washington Bridge was first built, there were many head-on traffic accidents. The emergency crews trained and planned and grew better in their response time to reach the accident victims and remove them from the bridge to get hospital care. Through years of practice, they increased their rescue efficiency. The problem was that many accidents still occurred. By using systems thinking and taking a larger framework approach to the situation, they were able to resolve the predicament. Someone emerged with the idea to erect a barrier divider between the lanes of opposing traffic. Accidents were thus dramatically reduced.

These tough recessionary times may force creative if not obvious solutions to cost-cutting and marketing strategy. Are you facing problems which are things going wrong defined by mistakes or defects, or a predicament that may be comprised of inescapable dilemmas?

If it’s a problem of economics and serious cost-cutting is required, you can reexamine each line item cost on your budget and question the necessity of the expenditure. You can do this yourself with your staff or hire an objective consultant. But if you have been operating your business in a certain way for a long period of time, changes may be required that are not so obvious.

Inertia is a very strong influence making one impervious to even vital changes. Accept this but move on. Severe negative economic conditions force change that may be the solution to future profitable growth. Try to go with the flow instead of resisting natural forces. Reevaluate which are your profitable business units or niches. Can these be expanded? Can you collaborate with vendors to offer new technology to the market or efficiencies that will reduce costs to your clients? What are your clients demanding now and how can you provide for those requests? Ask them for their opinions and how you can help. Instead of wasting time on previous mistakes, focus your energy on endeavors that will make your organization profitable today and into the future. Spend no more time on past failures than is necessary to learn enough not to make the same mistakes again.

Foolishness is paying the same price twice. Learning, changing and moving onward may require acceptance of a predicament that could not be resolved, understood or explained. Invest your attention, resources and powers of positive thinking to accommodate the demands of your new successful future.

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