Thursday, December 2, 2010

Advice From My Mentor – Problems vs. Opportunities

As I continue to reflect on the advice and sayings of various people who have mentored to me over the years I can’t help but notice how their words have helped shape and mold my leadership skills and life in general into what it is today. Tony, the Plant Manager of the Kraft Foods plant I worked at, was one of my earlier mentors I find myself quoting often. One of his favorite sayings was:

“There is no such thing as a problem, only an unsolved opportunity.”

When I would come to him with a problem I can still clearing remember him saying, “Now Larry, you know there is no such thing as a problem only an unsolved opportunity.” Then he would say “What we need to do is work on this opportunity.”

I can remember getting so frustrated with him that one day, in a management meeting, I fired back at him; “No Sir, This is a DAMN problem” He looked at me and said we would deal with it later and continued with the meeting. After the meeting was over he called me to his office and we dealt with it.

Tony was the kind of mentor that you really learned to appreciate. Every moment to him was a teaching moment and his calm demeanor would put you at ease and in a frame of mind to learn. Once again he proceeded to explain to me what he meant by problems vs. opportunities.

A problem is something or someone who presents a difficulty or obstacle for you to overcome. It has a negative connotation and tends to direct your actions to a negative response. Most often this also leads to less than desirable results.

An opportunity offers you a chance to achieve or excel in accomplishing a task. By defining the “problem” as an opportunity you change it from a negative to a positive and you begin to approach the solutions from this positive point of view. Usually this will result in a positive and successful outcome.

So how do you change a problem to an opportunity? As always the first step is to define the issue. You need to break it down to it’s fundamental parts and clearly state each one. This is an important step because you do not want to focus all your efforts solving the symptoms while failing to identify and address the root cause of the issue.

Once you have defined the issues you need to identify the opportunities that are associated with them. By changing your focus from problem solving to opportunity capitalization you change the goal from a negative to a positive solution. Granted, this is not always an easy exercise. This is one of the times when you may need the help of a peer, supervisor, or a mentor. I have often found another person’s viewpoint and/or questions will help me come up with the best course of action.

Once you have developed a plan of action then implement it, emphasizing the positive aspects and outcomes. This can turn what was a “problem” into an opportunity to excel and achieve your goals. If the issue is employee related then you both have the opportunity to grow and achieve by turning a potential win-lose situation into a win-win victory.

This was Tony’s goal in making his problem vs. opportunity statements when you came to him with a “problem”. His plan was to make you dig for the opportunities in every issue and work toward solving them. He was always there with thought provoking questions and directions to help you work through any issue.

This is how I have tried to approach issues throughout my career in management. Usually I have been very successful at turning negatives into positives with the results being recognized as achievements and accomplished goals. As a manager I have tried to apply these same principles when I am working with my team attempting to overcome an obstacle. By teaching them to view “problems” as opportunities they can achieve their goals with a lot less stress and a lot more success.

By focusing on the positive you can easily see how “There is no such thing as a problem, only an unsolved opportunity.”

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