When “It’s Not A Problem” Is the Problem!—Perception of Problems
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
S. Ratnayake
Owner, Motivatum Consulting, Waterdown, ON, Canada

There is an incredible amount of frustration that comes from feeling like you are the only person noticing a problem! Why can’t the others see it? Why is everybody ignoring it? Why am I being told “it’s not a problem” when it clearly is?!

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a problem is defined as: “A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.” With that said, there are two questions when a perceived “problem” arises…

1.  Is it truly unwelcome or harmful?

2.  Will dealing with it, or overcoming it, make our situation better, easier and/or less “harmful?”

When a problem is identified, it is all about the eyes of the beholder, so your first step has to be about the people. Within a team, it isn’t always about everybody believing there is a problem, it’s about the “right” people believing it. In some cases, the “right” people are the entire team, in other cases it could be a manager, owner or other key decision maker. Nevertheless, without the “right people” buying into the greater issue, we cannot move forward.

Step 1—Identify the key people necessary to buy into your problem and need for change. Normally, these people are the ones who are actively part of/connected to your problem, or necessary to participate in/sign off on, the financial or strategic steps necessary for the solution.

A favourite saying of mine is that “People don’t change because you tell them to, they change because they feel something.” With that in mind, your job is to help these key people feel something. Easier said than done? Maybe. But think about it this way: By definition, problems are an unwelcome or harmful matter, so what you have to do is work backwards and make a case for how it is harmful or unwelcome from somebody else’s perspective.

We are surrounded by problems in the world. We hear it on the news. We see the protests. We sign the petitions. Problems are depressing and can actually feel quite overwhelming. Deciding which problems to tackle can sometimes feel like a problem in itself, and this leads to people settling for “good enough” or “comfortable” situations where the proverbial “devil you know” is still better than the new and unknown situation.

Seriously are usually the things that affect us most personally. They have actual consequences that directly impact us, or people we care about… in some cases, animals we care about. How do you tie your perceived problem to something people genuinely already care about and are already committed to? How do you make it feel personal to them?

Step 2—What motivates the key people we have identified? For example: Is it financial gain (or minimizing financial waste)? Is it reputation of the team or practice? Is it better patient care/ medicine outcomes? Is it efficiency, time management or productivity? Is it a happier, less stressful work environment?

Whatever the case may be, and regardless of your own personal motivation, you must highlight the things that are most important to your key people. If your key people are already bought into a mission or vision statement, core values or brand, then you can utilize these to your advantage. In some way, any perceived problem would be in direct contradiction of these elements, preventing us from being our best self as a team, practice or business. If your key people are not already on board with one of these elements, or if your practice doesn’t already have something specifically articulated, then it is important to drill down to basics and identify something they are personally committed to. Find something people care about and tie the problem to that thing. Again, this isn’t about why you think it’s important… this isn’t your why; it’s about theirs!

Step 3—Secure buy-in. Tie the problem to the things that drive your key people. Connect the dots carefully and studiously. Ensure each point you make has a targeted purpose behind it. Position everything from their perspective—make them feel something about the problem. Make it personal. Use examples where possible to make it real. Emphasize the consequences of what might happen if we don’t address this problem now.

Nothing resonates more closely to us than when there is a relatable story. A true example of how the problem is affecting us as individuals, a team, a hospital, a business. Stories engage people. It makes them care. Ensure your story is powerful enough, and/or that you have multiple examples. We all know that the survey-of-one will be a quick way for somebody to negate your problem so choose carefully. This doesn’t mean that a single example isn’t good enough. In some cases, one bad outcome is all you need, the worst case is it was already one too many. Just ensure the example is significant. Talking in terms of how things may go in theory is never going to be as compelling of an argument as something that has already happened, or something that might have happened with a serious outcome in conflict with what your key people care about.

Give them an example of how the problem is “harmful” and pose the simple question of “so now what?” We often don’t like to think about what might be, and when faced with the need to answer it we must ask ourselves, is it easier/better to address the problem before something goes wrong, or are we comfortable with waiting for it to go wrong and then having to take action. Of course, not every problem is about something being wrong. In the case of finances, it could be that we are being wasteful or inefficient. Technically nothing is “wrong,” but it could be that we are spending money that would be much better utilized somewhere else. This is significant. Money, time and energy (physical or emotional) are high value goods and problems associated with these three are more apt to be taken seriously.

Step 4—Be solution oriented. Look for greater engagement. Seek feedback and involve others. Flush out ideas, listen to understand, remain focused on positive outcomes and get agreement on a potential solution.

Once your key people acknowledge an issue, it is time to discuss solutions. At this stage it may be helpful to involve other team members as everybody has a different perspective and somebody from the outside looking in often has more clarity on exactly what is needed. No matter who you involve in the resolution, ensure that people are involved. You may already have a solution in mind, but in the same way that it is not about your why; it is not about your solution. Soliciting feedback from a larger group ensures that all possibilities are flushed out with any other issues and challenges raised openly. If people perceive other problems within the solution, it is of benefit to know this from the outset. There is always a “What’s in it for me?” concern with a larger team and, especially if the suggested tactic requires a change (even if just in mind-set), we must address the concerns head on and clear a path for our new initiatives. The buy-in of others when it comes to the solution often comes from their ability to be involved in the creation of the solution. People don’t like being told what to do, they will, however, do things they believe are necessary.

The devil’s advocate requires me to add a note here that acknowledges, some people just don’t like change. They will be indecisive on any solution, even when they agree there is a problem. They will complain about having to change habits or say that the problem isn’t big enough to change what we do now. At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand and declare a change is necessary. That is why we need our key people on board first. If you have a particularly “squeaky wheel” with respect to a real, relevant problem, then it begs the question of whether or not that person is a good fit for your team and the culture of your practice.

Of course, not every solution works well on the first try. Many people resist change because they have seen other changes implemented in vain, leaving the team with a new process or behaviour, and the same problem as before! A promise to monitor the proposed tactic to ensure it actually resolves the problem is a way to ensure more consistent follow-through from the team. They must trust that their time and efforts will result in success, and if they don’t, that a new solution will be identified.

Step 5—“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Measure and monitor your solution and if your problem is not addressed, change it and push forward!


Speaker Information
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S. Ratnayake
Motivatum Consulting
Waterdown, ON, Canada

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