Problems or Opportunities? Where should you focus your effort?

Kurt Simmons asked this question in ProblemsVersusOpportunites. He shared some (what I think) are valid thoughts. I agree with them on at a cursory level. But in keeping with this blog’s theme, An Alternate Reality, what would it mean if problems and opportunities are actually the same. What would that look like? Sound odd? Hang with me for just a minute.

Once Upon A Time

Problems represent a difference between what we have, and what we’d like to have. Using Kurt’s example, “wrasslin’ alligators” is a problem for a handful of reasons:

  1. The alligators may win
  2. If I win, PETA (and possibly law enforcement) will be after me, making the alligators look tame
  3. We play to a draw, leaving the swamp full of water AND alligators
  4. I really wanted to take the opportunity to drain the swamp, thereby creating an alligator free environment

Oh that’s ugly. Pursuing an opportunity created problems. Who’d have thought? As Andy Grove said, “No problem is so complicated that you cannot make it more complicated.”

So what’s an opportunity? An opportunity represents a difference between the extrapolation of my current state/rate/progress and some idealistically better, hoped for, potentially possible other state. What limits my opportunities?

  1. My current state. This includes all of the decisions and actions that got me into the swamp with the alligators. Where I am potentially limits where I can go. Someone wrasslin’ alligators isn’t likely to ponder running the Boston Marathon.
  2. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If I decide to pursue the Boston Marathon opportunity, I’m probably not going to work on getting the Nobel Prize in Economics (or Alligator Wrasslin’). Now the problem becomes selecting which opportunity to pursue.
  3. The illusion of opportunity. While the grass looks greener from the swamp, human history contains an incredible number of fixes that failed. So many in fact, that General Systems Thinking has an archetype cleverly named “Fixes that Fail”. It’s been said that “Today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions.”

So a problem is an opportunity who’s time is now, not in the future.

So What’s Your (view) Point?

Kurt alludes to the second proof that problems and opportunities are the same. He said, “Whenever I got injured playing sports I used to go in a deep funk. I think I grew up when I started looking at sports injuries as great opportunities to catch up on my reading.” This points to the same event being both a problem and an opportunity. In fact, Kurt says that “being up to your keister in alligators … is a great opportunity to practice alligator wrasslin’.”

I believe Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg was channeling Virginia Satir when he said “What happens isn’t important. It’s how we respond that’s important.” So it’s our viewpoint and response that determines if something is a problem or opportunity.

The Practical Application

Here’s a quick test. The AYE Conference super early discount period ends April 30, 2007. The price if paid in full is 40% off the at-the-door price. Based on what you’ve just read, would you consider this to be a problem or an opportunity? Need more information about the conference? You can check out the current schedule. Need to ask some questions? Drop me a note.