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Good Problems

May 28, 2020 By The Disrupter Leave a comment

“That’s a good problem to have.”  Have you ever heard that one before? Of course you have, it’s a cliché familiar to almost everyone…  but what does it mean?  Are there really some problems that are bad while others are less bad or even good?  Are these good problems more or less important to work on than the bad problems? 

Well, let’s start by agreeing just what a problem is in the first place. Oxford dictionary defines “problem” as:

  1. A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
  2. An inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law.

In the first, most common, definition I see little room for interpretation, “unwelcome or harmful” are words that seldom, if ever, can be paired with “good”.  The second definition, most frequently used in math and physics, removes any assessment or judgment and becomes merely an inquiry into given conditions. This is the definition we’ll focus on.

The phrase “good problem to have” is often used to describe a situation where one option is less bad than the alternative. For example:

  • Sales are booming so much that it’s tough to keep up with the demand. Surely that’s better than nobody wanting to buy your product or service. 
  • Our startup has raised a ton of money, but now the pressure is on to invest it wisely to grow the company to satisfy the stakeholders. Far better than being out of working capital and having to fold.
  • We have several excellent candidates for our open position but will have to tell many of them that they don’t get the job and we’ll lose out on their skills. A superior alternative, I think we’d all agree, to having no applicants or only sub-standard ones.

These aren’t good problems, though. These are basically “humble brags”. The rough equivalent of saying “My cup overfloweth and I don’t have anything to catch all that extra goodness with.” At worst, these are better problems, but more likely they aren’t problems at all. 

So what about the elusive good problem?  Does it truly exist?  Put simply, yes it does. The difference (subtle though it may be) is attitude and perspective. A good problem is one that is worth your time to solve, a problem that has the chance to move you and/or your company forward and, perhaps most importantly, one you choose to solve. That doesn’t necessarily make them easy to spot, so I’ve created an “Optimist’s List for Good Problem Criteria” (realists can play along too, pessimists are half-unwelcome).

  • Is the problem solvable/actionable? If nothing can be done to affect a set of conditions, it’s not a good problem, it’s a meteor headed to earth that can’t be stopped by your optimism and energy. That’s definitely a bad problem, and not worth your energy to try and solve.
  • Is the problem linked to an opportunity? When viewed as a way to gain reward and/or reduce harm almost all problems fit this criteria – either by exploiting for gain or mitigating damage, improvement is realized. But it’s important to ask because if you can’t say yes, then this one is definitely not worth your time.
  • Is it the result of progress in other areas? Healthy tension between sales and production or other growth-related problems are always worth solving. Either by raising the struggling areas to meet the achievements, or tempering runaway growth so the company can expand strategically.
  • Is the problem present in an atmosphere of accountability/openness? Only real, root problems can be meaningfully solved, and thus are the only ones worth your time working on.  Treating symptoms and downstream issues as problems is wasteful, and so open and honest discussion is crucial to identification of the root cause or causes.  This can be uncomfortable and, for some groups as currently assembled, perhaps impossible (if so, you have your first good problem!)

For the most part, you get to choose which problems you solve. Time and effort are limited resources, and that means that we should only work on good problems. There’s some more good news: most bad problems can be transformed into good ones by determining if it’s worth your time, taking ownership, and identifying root cause. If it still remains a bad problem – maybe it’s best to let it go, there’s not much you can do to avoid that asteroid.

There are many tools, models, and methods for strategic problem solving. Though they all are fairly simple to use, requiring commitment to the process more than innate problem solving skills, there is no one perfect process.  Use several of them until you find the one that fits your organization best. (Need a few starting points? Write me a note. I’ll suggest my favorites and probably a book or two.) 

Embrace your problems, but make sure you’re only embracing the good ones. Your time and effort are your most valuable resources. Use them with a little optimism and effort, and those good problems are your best opportunities!


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