When No One Owns the Problem

There are many problems in our societies, our organizations, and our relationships that no one wants to own.  Owning a problem implies a responsibility for solving it.  If one recognizes a problem but does not own it, one can often comfortably wait for others to solve it.  After all, the problem is not yours.

The most common example of this is the fading market value of your current products and services.  Examples include film-based cameras being replaced by digital,  photography, inexpensive flip phones by smart phones, and lackluster domestic cars – Mercury, Plymouth, Pontiac and Oldsmobile – by Asian and European imports.  These problems were well recognized, but everybody stuck to the knitting of the status quo.

Another common example is burdensome internal policies and procedures that provide little value and consume significant resources.  The worst situations are cultures of compliance laced with administrative incompetence.  An interview study we conducted with Department of Defense science and technology executives found that success could be primarily attributed to insanely committed champions who only succeeded by circumventing policies intended to support them.

Another pervasive example is processes intended to enhance a shared value but actually systematically undermine this value.  Many of the companies with whom I have worked have well-articulated processes for fostering and managing invention and innovation.  However, the prescribed decision making processes are often circumvented, particularly by senior executives who want their pet ideas supported.  Not surprisingly, cynicism quickly emerges and undermines invention and innovation.

All of these examples represent situations where the value of the status quo has significantly eroded.  Almost everyone recognizes this, but nobody owns it.  Everyone mutually pretends that everything is fine, but also internally acknowledges that things are amuck.  What is needed is a leader, at some level, to articulate the problem and advocate a solution.

It is much easier to get everyone to own a well-conceived and broadly recognized solution.  This solution represents what we are going to do rather than what we are going to stop doing.  It represents the pursuit of success rather than the avoidance of failure.  Few people want to accept responsibility for failure.  Everyone one wants to be recognized for contributions to success.

The idea of owning a problem suggests some level of blame for the existence of the problem.  People try to avoid blame.  In contrast, the notion of owning a solution suggests some prospects for success and perhaps recognition for having contributed to this success.  People usually aspire to such outcomes.

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