“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:
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:
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).
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!