“Houston, we have a challenge…” (problems, failure and innovation)

October 13, 2010

When did “Problem” become a dirty word?

In a business conversation, anyone who utters the “P” word is likely to be shut-down with the statement that “there are no ‘problems’ there are ‘challenges’”.

For those who are from a technical background (e.g. NASA engineers), problems are a good thing – saying there is a problem immediately implies that there is also a solution.   There may be ‘challenges’ faced on the way to reaching those solutions, but problems are something we can work on, something we can do something about.  We can solve a problem and possibly prevent a failure.

But then again, “failure” is another word you can no longer use is business. Failures are now “learning opportunities”.

Now, it is true that if the NASA team had not solved the problems (sorry, ‘challenges’) on Apollo 13, they would have had quite a learning opportunity.  As would have the crew; but the crew’s learning opportunity would have been very ‘short-lived’.

One problem with the constant relabeling of terms is that you cannot change the nature of the thing the terms stand for, and eventually the emotional baggage of the old term will apply to the new. (“If it quacks like a duck, looks like a duck…. it’s still a duck”.)   The flight crews of Challenger and Columbia would have suffered the same fate regardless whether you called those situations ‘catastrophic failures’ or ‘learning opportunities’.

Another problem with relabeling ties into the cultural source of relabeling as a concept.  People whose work has real, direct results have less problem using strong words.  By strong words I don’t mean the kind that would have gotten your mouth washed out with soap by mom, I mean the kind that will get you a dressing down by your supervisor (and possibly lead to professional ‘learning opportunities’ for you).

If your work has a direct, observable function (be that as a farmer, or as a NASA engineer) you are fine with calling a failure a ‘failure’.  The fact that you will learn from your failures is a given; it’s part of the job, so obvious that you need not mention it.  You call problems problems, and then you go solve them.   And you also know there are some problems and failures that are out of your control: there are unpredictable elements to life and work and you handle them as they come.

In much of the corporate world, though, people’s work is so far removed from the ultimate results, that it is possible (and perhaps even savvy, in a Machiavellian way) to avoid calling things what they are. But relabeling truths doesn’t alter the truths – they are still the elephants in the room; elephants that no one dares mention in an environment of fear and mistrust.  It seems the more euphemisms an organizations uses, the deeper the culture of fear and distrust, and the more paralyzed people are from actually taking action.  In a business where you cannot say ‘problem’ or ‘failure’, it is very clear that you are not allowed to have one, under any name.  It is also clear that there is no real desire to innovate or learn; the preferred approach is to sweep failures under the rug.  It more important to protect oneself from blame than to solve the problems.

This situation presents great losses in opportunity: when individuals and organizations face problems head on and learn from failures, that is where the real innovation happens.  Don’t believe me?  Ask the crew of Apollo 13 and the folks at NASA how much they learned, and how many solutions they innovated to bring that crew home.  And they did so because they faced up to the catastrophic failures on the craft, addressed the problems, and then set to work.  Heads were not going to roll for the failure, the only unacceptable action was not to try.

Innovation is the buzz-word of the day in businesses; if you want innovation to happen, call problems what they are.  And then go solve them.


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