One of the interesting aspects of working with many client managers is hearing how they’ve experienced or observed the Major Mistakes Managers Make. One such manager described this fatal error (concentrating on problems not objectives) to us as follows: "One reason for the lack of effectiveness on the part of so many managers is that they major on minors." When we asked him what he meant, he said he had observed many managers spending as much as 90 percent of their time dealing with problems that only influence 10 percent of their productivity. In many instances, they become so involved with problems that they totally lose sight of their objectives.
Turning Problems into Opportunities
Managers will often approach us seeking a personal conversation. Given a supposedly sympathetic ear, we find very few talk about their objectives or goals. Almost invariably they’ll concentrate on problems, so it seems that managers could use some tools to help them avoid this flaw.
A number of years ago we consulted with a company that recognised this failing of management. In response they attempted to eliminate the word problem from the vocabulary of their managers by having them referred to as opportunities. We found it fascinating to participate in their management meetings and hear managers say, "I'm faced with an opportunity I'm having difficulty solving." They may have changed their vocabulary, but they didn't have the tools to eliminate the fatal error. One of their managers revealed the futility of this exercise when he described his attitude to a new marketing approach by quoting Pogo. He said: 'We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity."
We call the opposite of concentrating on our problems and losing sight of our objectives "creativity." Creativity fails us when we become absorbed in problems and ignore the end results we want to obtain. Creativity dies, or at least withers, until we shift our attention back to our objective. In our opinion creativity in business can best be defined as "the ability to understand the forces impacting upon us, and being able to utilise those forces as a means of reaching our objective." More simply stated, it means ‘the ability to understand your business environment and conditions and to use these to your advantage’. The very issues and circumstances that first appear as roadblocks to our success can often be used as levers that make success a reality.
To achieve this we must first stop dissipating our energy on being obsessed with our problems, and fighting the environment or situation. Far too many managers act like they are total ‘non-swimmers’. If you put a non-swimmer in a boat, take them a kilometre offshore and toss them in the water, what will they do? Certainly they will try to swim, but in their panic, they will fight the water. The more they thrash about, the more they fight the water, the faster they dissipate their energy, and the faster they drown. Put a competent swimmer in the same situation and they will do something quite different. First, they’ll relax, float and tread water. In treading water, the expert swimmer is using the environment, using the conditions to sustain themselves. Next, they set an objective, the shoreline, as a destination; then at a reasonable pace, keeping their shoreline objective in sight, they swim to shore. Throughout the entire process, they use the water (their environment) as the means of achieving their desired result. Whenever we abandon or lose sight of our objective, we begin to drown, because we’re killing our creativity.
Why do we do this? Our educational system has conditioned us to view any situation that might disrupt our plans as a threat. For the most part, when we were in school we were taught that we must have a "right answer"; this conditioned us to develop a ‘one-answer mentality’. That may be true in mathematics; however in the business world, things are more variable. There is always more than one way ‘to skin a cat’. When we have a set of objectives and we’ve developed a plan, the factors that may interfere with its achievement can disturb or frighten us, because we can see the right answer (our plan) ‘running off the rails’. French philosopher Emile Cartier described the danger in our one-right-answer approach when he said, "Nothing is as dangerous as an idea, if you have only one."
Creative managers versus those who fall into the trap of concentrating on their problems think differently when challenged. Faced with a roadblock, the problem-obsessed manager asks the question "what?" "What will happen to me if I fail?" The creative manager, on the other hand, asks the question "how?" "How can I use this situation or condition to my advantage?" The very use of the question "how?" presupposes success, and that the objective will be reached.
The need for creativity runs through every segment of business. Management is essentially a thinking, not a doing job. The lifeblood of every business lies in ideas and creative thinking. Just look at Apple as an instructive example! Truly successful managers not only learn to view the environment as the vehicle for reaching their objectives; they train their people, their team, to share this creative perspective.
In our next post in this series we'll discuss Major Mistake #6 "Being a buddy, not the boss".