Think Leadership Ideas

Problem or Possibility?

A teacher asks a colleague about a particular student – imagine two different replies.

In the first, the colleague says, “He’s behind two grades in reading, lives in a single-parent home, and is picked on regularly by a other students.”
In the alternative response, the colleague says, “He reads everything he can about animals, his mom comes to every parent-teacher conference, and he has two good friends he hangs out with at school.”

Both responses are about the same student.

This example illustrates the difference between a problem perspective that focuses on deficits and fixing what’s broken, and a possibility orientation that focuses on strengths and building on assets. Assuming equally good intentions, we would be right to suspect that consistently responding from one perspective or the other would have a pervasive effect on the teacher’s efforts and impact.

The same alternative perspectives apply to leadership of an organization. In my experience, most leaders over-use problem thinking and under-use possibility thinking - and their organizations underperform because of it.

Consider the following: we all want good health, maximum wealth, and good quality products. Yet we do not gain optimal health simply by treating illness, just as we do not acquire prosperity simply by cutting costs, nor do we assure quality products simply by reducing manufacturing defects.

It obviously would be foolish and damaging to ignore illness, cost controls, or defects. However optimum health requires health-building practices; optimum wealth requires smart investment of assets; optimum quality requires outstanding design. Deficits need to be addressed, but direction, meaning, and growth arise from a possibility perspective.

Extraordinary organizations are not created simply by solving problems, but by unleashing possibilities. Leaders need to be skillful at problem-solving, yes - but to be outstanding they also need to be highly competent at capturing their potential and bring it into fruition. Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great, notes great leaders help their organizations “confront the brutal facts” of their circumstances, yet “never lose faith” in their ability to achieve. They always have their “possibility” visible and active.

Posing questions that purposefully elicit either a problem or possibility frame of reference is a superb skill to have in one’s leadership toolbox. Just slightly different phrasing of a question can lead groups into very different discussions and results. I love demonstrating this in leadership workshops - after dividing the participants into small groups, I’ll ask half of the groups to “prioritize issues to help their organization increase excellence.” I’ll then ask the other half to discuss “how they can build on successes to help their organization increase excellence”. Typically, both the discussion process and results quickly diverge - depending on which question the group is asked. The ‘issue’ group rarely acknowledges strengths or assets - they prioritize a list of problems and start working on solutions. Goal...fix the problems. The ‘possibility’ group typically delves into solving problems, but only after assessing strengths and prioritizing the successes they would like to build upon. Goal...maximize achievement.

Leadership Actions
Ultimately, organizations need both problem-solving skill and possibility thinking to excel - but not haphazardly. Stimulating possibility thinking and guiding problem-solving processes are leadership responsibilities.

Develop Your Own Capacity To develop organizations that appropriately apply both problem and possibility perspectives, first leaders must gain awareness of their own thinking patterns, develop skill in both problem-solving and possibility-thinking strategies, and learn how to switch modes appropriately according to circumstances.

Cultivate Possibility Thinking in Others The point of leadership is influencing others and gaining followers. Leaders do well to develop a toolbox of skills for influencing followers to adopt either a problem-solving or possibility-enhancing perspective. Great skills for that toolbox include asking questions that elicit a specific perspective; exchanging ‘success stories’ instead of ‘war stories; and group process facilitation so dialogue is meaningful and purposeful whether in possibility-thinking or problem-solving mode.
Too much problem-solving is a problem, and can weaken your organization. Rather than focus on better problem solving, your organization may benefit more by better possibility thinking.

Problem or Possibility? For exceptional leaders, the answer is…yes!

by Tom Stevens (c)2006, 2010, 2012
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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