What’s the problem?

Thoughts on survival and progress

I got ninety-nine problems… —Jay-Z

One day, in preparation for a team meeting, I asked a small group of people to open a shared Google Doc and add a few sentences under three headings—progress, plans, and problems. As I reviewed what everyone had written, I noticed that one person had replaced the Problems header with Challenges & Opportunities. Apparently, problems was too negative.

Problems that threaten our survival

When the oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded, Astronaut John Swigert famously said "Houston, we've had a problem here." What followed was a stunning show of teamwork and competence that saved the lives of all three astronauts on board. The crew performed hand calculations to reroute the spacecraft, the Lunar Module was used for a purpose it wasn’t designed for, and oxygen tanks were resized using duct tape and plastic covers from the spacecraft’s procedural manuals.

It feels absurd to rush to correct Swigert and reclassify the catastrophic failure of his spacecraft’s oxygen tank as simply an “opportunity” or a “challenge.” The team faced an unwelcome situation that threatened the success of the project. This problem was countered with creativity and perseverance, which resulted in the survival of the humans involved.

Problems that lead to progress

Bouldering is a type of climbing that uses short routes with no ropes. It requires focused technique and mental discipline. Individual routes are referred to as problems, and are graded based on difficulty. Most climbers know what level of problem they can routinely tackle, and try to reach higher difficulty levels as their technique improves.

Before getting on the wall, it’s normal to take several minutes to size up the bouldering problem and mentally chart out a strategy. Good climbers spend more time analyzing problems than actually climbing. They rarely get a problem right the first time, but when they fall, they look for new theories about the best way to get to the top.

Problems

Some problems are like the rupture of the Apollo 13 oxygen tank—their impact is immediate and catastrophic. Survival—whether of a project, a team, or our own lives—depends on solving the problem quickly.

Most problems are like bouldering—we need to approach them strategically if we want to get better. The outcome is not immediate survival, but rather what we call “progress.” Most scientific advancement comes from these kinds of problems.

The first kind of problem is forced involuntarily upon us and must be reckoned with.

We voluntarily set ourselves upon the second kind of problem, in an attempt to find better explanations and solutions.

Interestingly, we have to tackle the second kind of problem to be ready for the first. The Apollo 13 astronauts didn’t survive out of luck—they survived because they had solved lots of other problems.

It seems fair to say that solving problems is fundamental to our survival and our progress as individual humans, and also to our institutions and collective efforts.

Problems and leadership

One other thought—in startups, you face a lot more “Type 1” problems than normal, and your company might actually die if you don’t solve them. On the other hand, because catastrophe makes it easy to “rally the troops,” sometimes leaders will make everything a Type 1 problem to keep energy and output high. If you do that too much, your team is going to burn out and you probably won’t get to the moon.

Learning how to correctly label and prioritize problems may just be the most important characteristic of a good leader.