Why It’s Better to Talk About Challenges Instead of Problems

Challenges and problems often seem to be the same thing. But they are not. Recognizing this difference is more than semantics. 

A problem is something you must overcome. Typically, it feels like it exists as a thing – “It is a problem!” But, problems don’t exist except in our heads. The flashing blue light in our rearview mirror seems like a problem at first – getting a ticket, costing money, etc.  But that’s not truly the case. What if you were driving in a snowstorm to take your wife to the hospital because she’s in labor? The same event is a godsend. 

Problems aren’t things, but when we look at them that way, they limit how we can solve them. What we label as problems tend to have us focus on the problem and the intended solution. But we should be talking about our objectives, that is, what we want to happen. This enables us to see other solutions. This often lets us avoid the problem entirely – by coming up with an easier, more effective approach to achieving the result.

Much of Design Thinking is to shift our focus from problems to what we’re trying to accomplish. Thinking about the challenges we’re having gets us a step closer. Thinking of what’s in our way as a challenge clarifies what our objective is. We can be looking for alternative solutions to achieve the objective more easily this way.

Degrees of Competency

Shu Ha Ri is a popular way of talking about how people progress from beginner to expert. However, it can be very misleading and even problematic.

Shu Ha Ri comes from martial arts. Shu means to follow. Ha, move away. And Ri to transcend.  These are often used to mean at the beginning people should follow, then start deciding on their own which practices to use, and finally to transcend.

In martial arts, it is important to disengage the mind while learning new movements of the body. But in knowledge work, even when we follow the teachings of a coach or trainer, we want our minds active.  We want to learn why what we are following is useful. 

I’ve heard many in the Scrum camp talk about Shu Ha Ri as a model of learning. Dispel understanding at first and just follow. Follow the rules of Scrum. To me, this is disrespectful. Even people new to Agile can use their experience. If their experience doesn’t match what they’ve been told they can still follow, but while following, think about what’s happening.

A better model to use is the Dreyfus model. It has five stages of knowledge:

  1. Novice. At this point, the student is just starting and has no expertise. They operate by using context-free features and rules. They don’t understand that rules are contextually based and occasionally need to be violated. They do assume responsibility for the consequences of their ideas and feel little responsibility for the outcome of their actions
  2. Advanced beginner. At this point, they have achieved some experience. They are using more sophisticated rules. They ask questions. They still need guidance.
  3. Competent. Now they can work on their own without guidance. But they are still using known methods. They are just seeing which ones to use in their context. They accept responsibility for their choices. They can solve problems and make decisions. 
  4. Proficient. They can use intuition and detached decision-making. 
  5. Expert. They can create new methods. They function unconsciously without having to think about everything. It’s natural to them.

The point is Shu Ha Ri should never mean to dispel thinking. If you want to follow, follow while thinking about why you are doing what you are doing. 

<< Part II: The Disciplined Way to Talk to People

Part IV: Coaching for Improvement >>


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