Should we prioritise finding problems over solving them?

Organisations place great store in having a culture of problem-solving, but there are dangers in being so reactive. Getting on the front foot and problem-finding instead could bring business benefits

A lot of attention is lavished upon problem-solving. It is not only widely regarded as an indispensable skill in the workplace but is perhaps one of the most important skills required for life itself. Problem-solving is important in the workplace as problems can often have a hugely disruptive effect on business; the longer they are left unsolved, the more money the company loses.

People who have a good approach to problem-solving are thus lauded as being incredibly important to the company. But this may not be the right way to contextualise the issue. Perhaps rather than focusing on problem-solving, we should instead prioritise a problem-finding approach.

A proactive approach

Problem-finding is a proactive approach that prioritises finding problems rather than solving them. Many people are remarkably tolerant of problems at work. When asked why they do things in an inefficient manner, for many people the standard response is ‘we have always done it this way’. These people may have solved a problem by finding a way to do whatever the task is, but this has blinded them to the problems that still exist with their approach because they are just problem-solving, not problem-finding.

Problem-finding is about being proactive and going out of your way to identify problems with working practices. Employees should be working to find problems before they occur so that they can be solved before they start losing the company money. This does not just apply to their work streams, but to those of others as well. Some skills can be highly applicable in areas other than someone’s direct job. For example, an analyst may be able to improve the speed of finance functions using their skills in automating analytics functions. By going out of their way to find a problem and fix it, they are improving the company as a whole.

Sign of dysfunction

Some may say that this is great in principle, but in reality, people are too busy with their normal workloads to improve things for themselves, let alone help others. This may be true but having no time to improve things is the sign of a dysfunctional company that may well soon find itself unable to compete with others who find better ways of doing things, saving time and money.

A company where everyone is constantly fighting fires rather than working to prevent them is not going to survive in a business world as fast paced as it is today. This approach has some similarities with other innovative business practices.

‘Problems can be found everywhere, not just with new projects or ideas…’

The fail fast approach is well known for encouraging companies to be bolder in their approach to new ideas to identify weaknesses and problems before investing significant amounts of time and effort into them. It shares some parallels with a problem-finding approach but is too fixed on new efforts. Problems can be found everywhere, not just with new projects or ideas. This makes the company as a whole more robust rather than focusing on new developments at the expense of existing ones.

Time must be made for problem-finding and a concerted effort to shift focus towards this approach. The business world changes very rapidly and is more open to technological disruption than ever before. This means that whoever is best able to adapt and improve is will be most resilient in the face of unexpected changes. Making time for employees to seek out problems rather than constantly being on the back foot and passively reacting to changes will pay dividends in cementing the position of your business.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork