Why it is sometimes necessary to refuse to tackle a problem ?

Managing others is good, but first of all it is better to start by managing oneself. Some of the anecdotes I heard during the confinement reminded me of a “self management” subject I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while: learning not to be stubborn when faced with a problem, not to be concerned and literally speaking “learning to let go”.

I start from the premise that there are two things that are really limited: time and attention to which I assimilate the ability to focus on a subject at a given time. Everything else can be lost and regained, or a substitute can be found.

In life and even more so at work, things never go as planned and a lot of things come between us and our goals. Usually we call them problems and we try to solve them in order to move forward. In our complex and informational world I usually say that most people’s job is to solve problems. This also justifies a big change in approach to work if we compare one to a time in the past when for most people the job was to do things.

On the other hand, there is one thing that I can’t stand in many cases: seeing people getting angry at a problem, yelling, gesticulating, moving around and, even worse, making everyone benefit from it and stressing others.

A cancelled flight, a bus that doesn’t arrive, a customer that doesn’t show up, a natural disaster that impacts the business…the list is long, even infinite. And in a period of confinement it has even gotten longer because “we can’t get out”, “the business has stopped”, “I had to cancel my holidays”, “we only reopen restaurant terraces while it is raining” …

Then they scream, they complain, they roar, they squeak, and they get on my nerves.

Why does that tire me out so quickly to say the least? Because we’re talking about things over which we have absolutely no control.

We are all familiar with the Eisenhower’s matrix, which asks us to prioritize things according to their urgency and importance, and it has proved its worth.

Then you will tell me that what we are talking about are things that are both important and urgent and therefore deserve to be treated as a priority. Yes, and that is where the matrix, or at least its instructions for use, lack something, which is to know whether or not we have power over things!

Alors bien sûr la notion de pouvoir peut être relative : parfois nous ne pouvons rien changer aux choses mais d’autres peuvent, alors il s’agit de savoir si on a accès à ces personnes et si on peut les convaincre d’agir dans notre sens. Mais dans beaucoup de cas personne n’y peut rien et c’est comme ça.

So of course the notion of power can be relative: sometimes we can’t change things but others can, so it’s a question of whether we have access to these people and whether we can convince them to act the way we want them to. But in a lot of cases nobody can do anything about it and that’s the way it is.

This applies both in private life and at work. The plane that takes you on vacation is four hours late? You can gesticulate as much as you want you won’t make it arrive earlier. Are your shops closed because of the confinement? Unless you have the favors of the president of the republic (and even then) it’s a lost cause. Bad weather is bad for your business? Some people have tried to control the weather, it hasn’t been successful yet.

Generally speaking, one sentence illustrates the situation well: honking the horn like a madman has never helped to clear a traffic jam.

In fact, there are a number of steps between getting headlong into a problem and giving up on it altogether. The sole purpose of these steps is to ensure that you only devote your energy to things you can make an impact on. Tackling lost causes is like presenteeism or the art of making people believe that you’re always super busy when you’re not doing anything useful (busyness vs business….): it entertains people for a while, it fools a manager, it gives an image of a hard worker but in the end it doesn’t produce anything and worse, it can even be counterproductive.

Your problem is not your problem

When we have a problem that prevents us from reaching an objective, a result, we only look at it and we forget the essential: the initial objective. The problem becomes the objective and we forget everything else. If we have no control over it, things are badly started.

So the first thing to do is to lose interest in the problem and get back to the objective and see if it can be achieved by some other means.

Examples :

  • My flight’s cancelled, I’m taking the train. The goal is not to take the plane but to arrive on the spot.
  • I won’t be able to make it to the meeting in time, I’m attending by phone. The goal is not to get there but to talk to people.
  • My shops are closed because of confinement, I am going into e-commerce. The goal is not to open shops but to sell!
  • My supplier is no longer able to provide the quantities requested. Well let’s look at the competition! The goal is not to make this supplier work but to have the products.

The quicker we rephrase the real problem, the less time we spend on it, the less energy and nerve impulses we waste, the quicker we move on. In fact, moving from an insoluble problem to realistic options immediately lowers the tension.

The idea here is to return to the primary objective without being distracted by a secondary objective (solving the problem) which is only a fabrication of our mind.

One goal is worth another

Another approach is to change the objective if there is no plan B in spite of everything. This amounts to substituting one result for another with as little loss as possible in the exchange. Or put another way, if you don’t have what you like, you have to learn to like what you have.

Examples :

  • I can’t go on holiday in Italy for health reasons, so I’ll go to Greece.
  • My supplier can’t deliver the 10,000 pieces I’m expecting. 7,000 is better than nothing, for lack of better.
  • I decide to go into e-commerce as a matter of urgency but a project worthy of the name takes at least 6 months and the sales are in one month. Well, let’s launch something less ambitious, a little more “quick and dirty” but that will work in a month. For something more elaborate we’ll see later.

The idea here is to keep in mind that according to the time-honoured expression “1 is always greater than 0″ and that, in the absence of anything else, it is better to change or even lower ambition than to do nothing at all.

Getting a head start by assuming it’s gonna go wrong.

There are no other means of achieving the objective and there is no substitute for an objective that would produce an equivalent or acceptable result. Is the case lost? Not always.

The worst will happen and there will be consequences. So be it. Well forget about solving the problem, the worst will happen anyway and already think about anticipating and managing the consequences. This will sometimes allow you to get ahead of your competitors who are facing the same problem but who continue to work in vain on it, or to bring good news to your clients who expect you to fail and who rather than bad news will see you come with a proactive plan.

Is the goal worth it?

And I should have even started there. Okay, a problem is preventing me from reaching my goal, but is it that important? Is it a major goal? Is a delay prohibitive? Is the benefit of fixing this problem in relation to the time and energy it will take me paltry compared to putting the subject aside and dealing with something else more important?

Knowing how to use your time well is important, but it must be combined with fuel management, which is about our attention and energy, which again means arbitrating and making choices. It also means knowing how to recognize one’s helplessness, admitting that the initial plan is not going to work, which some people see as a sign of weakness or incompetence, whereas it is a quality when acting under stress because you have to focus on the really working options.

Nothing is used to show others and oneself that one is doing something even if it is useless. What you need to do is to do something useful, something that has an impact. And if you can’t make an impact, you might as well do nothing.

On a personal level, when faced with the unexpected, I avoid going headfirst and in front of what looks like a wall that I know I have no means to cross or break:

  • I wonder if going to the other side is so important…
  • Then I try to go around
  • I wonder if I can’t replace what I had to find on the other side with something else.

And for lack of a viable option I move on because there are worse things than not solving a problem over which you have no power, it’s spending enough time in denial to not deal with things over which you have power instead and thus create other cascading problems of your own.

And in any case it allows me to keep a cool head, stay Zen and not spread unnecessary stress around me. And above all to keep my attention, my time, my energy for things I can change and not like Don Quixote to go and fight windmills.

Photo : Not my problem from rogistok via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

Recent posts