Kill Them While They’re Small

Math professors love to hand out problem sets.  Many a weekend was consumed resolving these.  One of my friends pointed out that problems are only problems if you don’t know how to solve them.  If you know how to solve them, they are merely questions.  The distinction is true outside the walls of a university too.

We get confused some times. We fix things that are not broken and apply difficult methods to easy questions.  For example, as Harvey MacKay has pointed out, “If you can solve a problem by writing a cheque, you do not have a problem, you have an expense.”  Too bad they are not all that easy.

Problems without known answers, come in two forms.  Big enough that you must deal with them and small enough that you can ignore them.  The trick is to know the difference.  Right?

Probably wrong!  It is the “ignore” part.  A problem you can ignore forever is not a problem to begin with.  I routinely ignore the traffic problems in New Delhi even though it ranks 5th in the world for traffic congestion.  So far no adverse consequences.

Small problems that you ignore, but cannot ignore forever, accumulate.  Eventually you have a large bag full of them and the bag takes on a life of its own.  Jordan Peterson at University of Toronto contends that stress results from the the accumulation of small undone tasks.  A bag of small problems is itself a big problem.

You cure the big bag of small problems issue by using two criteria:

  1. Can I ignore this forever?   if yes, ignore it forever.    if no,
  2. If it were a hundred times bigger how would I deal with it?

The 100-times bigger problem must be solved.  Understanding how you would relate to it at that size, will give you insight into how to remove the little problem.   For example, warranty claims when you could redesign a part to cure the problem.  Then  you must act on it and empower systems or people to keep it at bay.

As you do this, you will find that it takes less time than the ignoring method.  Remember that the ignoring method keeps issues coming at you while the solving method is done once, done forever.  (Well almost that good)

Once in a while, certainly not every time, facing down the little problem, gives you insight into what could have become a big problem in the future.  Even more rarely it gives you the insight into an opportunity.  The rare occurrence of these will pay you for all the effort elsewhere.

Killing big problems while they are small is a competitive advantage.  Use it.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.