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Three Reasons Why Hard Problems Are Hard


Most leaders recognize that success hinges on their ability to solve hard problems. But sometimes an organization expends so much effort on finding solutions that leaders fail to fully explore the nature of the problem. That’s unfortunate, because leaders have a better chance of resolving those problems if they understand the factors that make them so difficult.

So why are hard problems hard? And what do hard problems have in common?

Much of the research on the typology of problems is based on their attributes. A relatively new acronym trending in managerial circles now is VUCA, which describes problems in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. A more longstanding way to frame a problem is in terms of its wickedness, according to design theorist Horst Rittel, who describes problems based on a set of dimensions that indicate how intractable and unsolvable an issue may be. In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz differentiates between three kinds of problems: when the problem and solution are clear, when the problem is clear but the solution isn’t, and when neither the problem nor the solution is clear.

The fact is, organizations make some problems harder than they need to be. No two will approach and handle the same challenge in exactly the same way. In other words, a problem’s difficulty may be a function of an organization’s culture, not an inherent attribute of the problem itself. In these instances, there are three primary drivers that make a problem hard:

1. Organizational misalignment

When confusion over strategy, goals, and priorities exists, straightforward problems become extremely difficult. Misalignment, which is exacerbated by poor communication, may cause an organization to work against itself. Just defining the problem can be a hurdle.

Misalignment makes it difficult to achieve consensus on how to address a problem or even what is an acceptable outcome. It’s a multidimensional challenge that can signal a disconnect between executives and employees, between an organization’s culture and the mission, or between its strategic vision and its daily activities.

For example, in the airline industry, when late evening flights are cancelled, passengers often expect meal or hotel vouchers. At one airline, only authorized senior managers could issue those vouchers, resulting in hours-long customer wait times. Misalignment between the company’s vision, its processes, and its employee empowerment turned the uncomplicated problem of issuing vouchers into the hard problem of poor customer service.

2. Resource scarcity

Insufficient money, talent, time or information creates conditions where unaddressed problems fester and grow. Since these resources aren’t directly fungible—that is, more money doesn’t necessarily make up for a lack of information—the lack of any one of these can forge a hard problem out of a simple one.

Consider the case of large power transformers. When one fails, the solution is relatively straightforward: fix it or replace it. However, these complex transformers—each one custom-designed, costing millions of dollars, and weighing between 100 and 400 tons—are exceptionally difficult to procure.

A replacement could take 20 plus months to obtain and hinges on the availability of copper and electrical steel. Suddenly, a problem with a straightforward technical solution becomes a hard problem.

3. Mismatches

Skills gaps in an organization’s workforce, ill-suited technology, and ineffective business processes are the kinds of mismatches that spawn hard problems. This is particularly important in a digital economy organizational agility is a requirement.

Some athletic apparel companies discovered the importance of mismatches when they  expanded  into the golf equipment business. While there is an obvious connection between what golfers wear and the equipment they use, the companies were unable to make the transition despite significant investments. They soon realized they lacked the organizational structure and skilled personnel to successfully shift to hardware production.

Attempts at repurposing sales strategies, engineers, and production models simply didn’t translate well. It wasn’t that these companies didn’t know how to manufacture things—they did—but organizational mismatches created hard-to-solve problems.

Adaptive Leadership Is Critical

The key to success is adaptive leadership, a term popularized by Heifetz to describe the process of confronting problems based on an organizational capacity for change. Adaptive leadership appreciates that each challenge can present lessons. Capitalizing on these lessons requires an openness to the learning necessary to tackle each problem, determine solutions, and include input from across the organization. In essence, adaptive leadership is the willingness and ability to innovate.

Hard problems are a fact of life. More often than not, an organization cannot talk, buy, or feign its way out of them. While hard problems can’t be avoided, adaptive leadership can help the process of identifying and implementing solutions. Not only will hard problems likely not be as difficult, but they will also be less common.

Nathan Houser leads the defense and national security practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

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