The problem with ‘problem’

I’ve just been listening to the CEO of the drinks company Britvic (which is being launched on the UK Stock Market) dealing with journalistic questions about the company’s flat sales in the last year. Did he acknowledge that they had a problem? Of course not. He talked about ‘challenges’ instead. This is par for the course nowadays — nobody wants to be caught acknowledging that they have a problem, with the result that it has become a pariah word in political and governmental circles.

This is daft, because problems are what we really need. I first learned this many years ago from Donald Schon, who taught architecture at MIT and wrote a wonderful book about professionalism entitled The Reflective Practitioner. In it, he challenged the prevailing view that professionals (lawyers, doctors, architects, etc.) are “problem solvers”. They’re not, argued Schon: they’re problem creators. A problem is a perceived discrepancy between a current state and a desired one. ‘Solving’ a problem means devising a means of getting from one to the other. So if you have a ‘problem’ then you’re half-way there: at least you know where you stand.

But most of the time in life we aren’t sure about one or other or both states — where we are now, or where we want to get to. So what happens is that people with hazily-defined difficulties come to professionals for help. The professionals then do some work on those difficulties to convert them into problems, after which they can identify possible solutions. Thus a father who wants to ensure that children of several marriages (each with its own property entailments) are equally treated in his will goes to a lawyer for advice. The lawyer (if she is a good one) will convert that general desire into a problem or problems for which legal solutions are available.

So let’s have more problems, not fewer.