How about being a problem-anticipator instead of a problem-solver?

Problem-Anticipating vs. Problem-Solving

Here’s a basic fact of life that people don’t really discuss all that often, best I can tell:

  • Most of the time, you have a plan for how something will go. This applies to work, to friends, to relationships, etc.
  • Most of the time, that plan does not actually go that way.

As a result of this happening almost every second somewhere in the world, we often place a large value on problem-solvers, i.e. people who can, well, solve problems when they arise. For example?

But what if we’re thinking about the idea of problem-solving all wrong?

Here’s where you need to begin this argument:

  • In the business world especially, we’ve shifted very much to a How culture in the last 20-30 years.
  • What I mean by that is a reduction in discussions around what we’re doing or why we’re doing a certain thing, and many more discussions about how it’s going to get done.
  • We’re trying to become an empathy culture in some places, but we’re still very much an execution culture.
  • When you have that type of world, everyone is by definition a ‘problem-solver,’ because when problems arise, the question is how are you going to solve them? There’s no “Well, I can’t.” If you want to keep your job in a world of missed targets, you usually have to be a problem-solver in some capacity.
  • As a result, problem-solvers are a little bit less unique than maybe they were in the 1950s business world.

What if you could be viewed as a problem-anticipator, though?

That’s what this former CMO turned CEO argues to Darden School of Business, noting:

Don’t just be a problem solver … try to anticipate issues and problems. Those people who become very good at not just overcoming obstacles but anticipating what could go wrong and put plans in place to mitigate it stand out.

This is a double-edged sword in some ways, because while executives and VPs like to breathlessly analyze financial metrics and the money they’re making // could be making, they often like to do so awash in positive aspects of that. If you’re a person that’s constantly pointing out issues and potential problems, you probably won’t get close enough to the top brass of an organization to really have much impact. That’s the downside. Remember: most businesses still have a ‘Cassandra Complex.’

But in a world where problem-solving is essentially a day-to-day task function for a lot of people, shouldn’t problem-anticipating be something that we really cherish on resumes? It’s obviously a hard thing to discuss in an interview — “I see problems from miles out, Jane. I really do.” — but it seems like something we should tangibly value nowadays. Anyone can solve a problem if their boss tells them they have to, but very few people can see a problem coming as executives want to chase some new opportunity and throw resources at that. That’s a disconnect.

What do you think?


Ted Bauer


  1. Some of the best anesthesiologists I’ve met are outstanding problem-anticipators. I think it’s more resourceful to anticipate rather than solve after the fact. Nice article.

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