Essentially problems are things we can solve. Tensions have to be managed. Unfortunately, we use the word problem when we describe both. This creates its own issue when our language leads us to use a problem-solving technique and then fail when we are trying to deal with a tension. A problem has a cause and a one-time fix. A tension is always present and needs ongoing management.

Problem or tension

You are overweight. Is this a problem? Absolutely, but please don’t think you can do a one-time fix. You know it takes ongoing attention. That makes it a tension. How many one-time fixes can you imagine in managing your team? Does a pay -rise fix an issue for ever? Surely managing the team is always a tension? Mark Schaefer’s guest blog on problems and tensions also asks if space travel is a problem or a tension. It’s a problem to get a man on the moon, but it’s a tension if this becomes an ongoing commercial activity.

When targets lead to failure

The key differentiator between them is that a problem is a one-off. So, trying to treat a tension like a problem by putting a target on it, is bound to fail. This is why most Government targets fail. Does anyone believe the 4-hour hospital waiting time target for A&E? Of course not, we all know it depends on what happened that day. It needs managing, all the time. The target is more of an aspiration. The waiting time is always a tension and attaching a target to it leads to all sorts of difficulties.

Confusing tensions with problems

We all do this in our businesses as well. We set targets for sales, conversions, response times – lots of targets, lots of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that won’t work, as they are usually focussed on tensions, not problems. Hardly any of them are one-offs. Will you really, once you’ve achieved your sales target, stop selling? I don’t think so. That was one of the issues with the old BS5750 British Standard for Quality Systems. Back in the day, as long as you measured, and achieved what you measured, you still passed. So, for example, I could set a target that we would complete half of clients accounts by the filing deadline, and as long as we did better than that, we would pass. And lose a lot of clients, who obviously expect all their accounts dealt with on time. We could have had a quality mark for doing an appalling job! And, so it is for many KPIs and targets that we set for ourselves and our teams. It’s also why at Hixsons, we advocate very few KPIs. Too many targets means that the easy ones get the attention, not necessarily the most important ones.

Most KPIs, being tensions, need a management system, not a pass or fail system. Or as it tends to be, a fail or fail system.

A simple pass or fail test is dangerous. It allows a pass to obscure a bigger fail. Suppose your target is to improve your gross profit by 1% a month, so that is your target. You can achieve that by a monthly price rise. But at some point, you will start to lose customers. Recognising the tensions between price rises and customer attrition, by looking at the whole picture, gets you a better overall result.

When it’s good to describe tensions as problems

Sometimes you might want to take a customer’s perceived problem away. Set a target that you know your business can achieve, pose it as a problem for your customer and pass the test every time. Firms do this with service level agreements. Is your broadband up-time guaranteed to be at least 95%? The firm is putting a problem into customer terms  – we need our broadband! And achieving this up-time target takes their problem away. Good sales technique, but, in reality the broadband firm are constantly managing the tension between bandwidth, redundancy, load etc. So, one person’s problem can be another person’s tension – or vice versa. Can you think of an area where you might be able to allay a customer’s concerns in a similar way?

Personal Life

This issue enters our personal life just as insidiously. We make a plan to get home by 6pm, spend more time with the family, have a holiday… it starts well…and somehow slips. So, we reset the plan, and the same thing happens again. There’s constant tension between our work and personal life, so it needs managing. If we treat it like a problem, and fail to solve it, our loved ones lose faith in us. Then there might be a different tension. You really don’t want to treat that like a one-off event in case it becomes just that. This is why we are so keen to identify with you what your personal goals are, as well as your business ones. We know there’s tension between them, so it’s good to go through with you how to manage that in detail, so that you have the best chance of getting what you want out of life.

Be more resilient

In our last blog we talked about resilience and risk, both highly relevant at this time. Many risk factors are actually tensions. Most of them need managing. And so does resilience. When we run our Strategic Planning Toolkit with a client, we specifically ask what constitutes financial independence in your business? Most people quote a number – cash in the bank. When you get to that figure you relax. But wait, over the time, sales have grown, and there are more overheads too. Your rainy-day money isn’t enough any longer. It’s not a problem with a one-off fix. You need to have a more meaningful measure, maybe 3 months overheads. That number changes as you grow, but because you are now managing the tension, you are creating a more resilient firm. Be very careful you don’t treat the current pandemic as a problem. Check your language, check your response and manage your way through it.   If you want to know more about managing risk and building the resilience you need to survive and thrive, call us on 01202 520010 or email