The Problem With Constantly Finding Problems

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever.

Anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail

Abraham Maslow or Abraham Kaplan (attributed)

Earlier this week I was challenged about my overuse of the word ‘problem’.

It’s a fair cop – innovation and design types are fond of saying you shouldn’t go looking for great ideas, you should unearth great problems.

If you jump straight to answers two things can happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Indeed many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

My experience shows me that a lot of leaders simply don’t like problem definition, or even the word problem.

See, people don’t like admitting that organisations , or their departments, even have problems. One of the reasons for this is that is it runs counter to the narrative of the heroic leader. Admitting that you don’t even know the problems you face, never mind the solutions to them, is a definite blot on your copybook.

However , there is a problem with obsessive problem seeking.

As Pat McCardle writes, seeing people as a series of problems to be solved can lead to an epidemic of mass fixing. “The expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug.” As she says, when we have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems we risk focussing on weakness and deficits. We become very efficient hammers searching for vulnerable looking nails.

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever. This in part explains why people feel the world is getting worse despite almost every measure confirming our planet is safer, happier and less violent than ever.

At organisational level this presents an issue – as we can unknowingly employ lots of people whose job it is to find problems that either don’t exist or aren’t a priority.

There are lots of examples of this that we see in day to day life. David Levari gives us the scenario of a Neighbourhood Watch made up of volunteers. When a new member starts volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like burglary. Overtime though the neighbourhood watcher may start to make relative judgments which keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. The ‘problem’ expands even as the original problem appears to have been solved.

The reason for this, as Daniel Gilbert says, may lie in a phenomenon called “prevalence induced concept change”. In a series of experiments they showed that as the prevalence of a problem is reduced, humans are naturally inclined to redefine the problem itself. The result is that as a problem becomes smaller, people’s conceptualisations of that problem become larger, which can lead them to miss the fact that they’ve solved it.

In some cases, Gilbert says, prevalence-induced concept change makes perfect sense, as in the case of an Accident and Emergency doctor trying to triage patients. Someone who has sprained an ankle will have longer to wait than someone with a head wound. But on a quiet day the sprained ankle could take precedent over other less serious issues. The context changes the priority of the problem.

In other cases, however, prevalence-induced concept change can be a problem.

As Gilbert outlines “Nobody thinks a radiologist should change his definition of what constitutes a tumour and continue to find them even when they’re gone.That’s a case in which you really must be able to know when your work is done. You should be able to see that the prevalence of tumours has gone to zero and call it a day. Our studies simply suggest that this isn’t an easy thing to do. Our definitions of concepts seem to expand whether we want them to or not.”

So if you’ve ever faced:

  • The overzealous IT Infosec person who constantly raises security concerns.
  • The Health and Safety team who create more and more training courses for people to complete.
  • The Research team who keep telling you more research and more resource is needed.
  • The Design team who tell you that your latest service needs to go back to problem definition as it hasn’t been implemented correctly.
  • The CEO who wants another change programme.

You could be facing cases of prevalence-induced concept change.

As Gilbert says – anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done.  

This is something our businesses have to get better at, as not knowing when to stop is the the prime driver of organisational overreach. But as the studies suggest – simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it.

What can prevent it?

That’s another problem.

Photo by Jules Bss on Unsplash

The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted personKhalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is misplaced.

However, we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and being busy than on thinking. On doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

We default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) organisational goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out some kind of essential truth.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get over-looked.



The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t want to solve a problem by talking about it for hours
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.


Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

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