Invisible Problems: The hidden force behind many business problems

Problems in Business fall into two camps: Visible Problems and Invisible Problems. In this article, we dive into this concept and provide three methods to identify and define Invisible Problems.

Let's imagine that you are on a highway, driving to an important client meeting with your boss.

Suddenly, there is a loud explosion. One of the tires has blown out. You try everything to stabilise the car and at the last second you manage to pull over to the sideline.

Although you’re both now safe, your boss starts to get nervous. The meeting is of great importance for the company’s future. Being late would be a disaster.

Luckily you are a godlike mechanic. You pull the emergency tire out of the trunk, jack the car and quickly replace the broken tire. In a matter of minutes, the car is back on the highway.

"You saved the company! You are a master problem-solver!" says your boss, obviously impressed by your performance. You can't resist cracking a smile.

But there is something you both didn't know.

You could have prevented the blowout in the first place. The front-right tire was slightly under-inflated, which increased the friction on the ground. With every rotation, the tire generated more and more heat until it eventually blew up.

You never saw that the tire was under-inflated. For you, it was an invisible problem.

The difference between Visible and Invisible Problems

If you think about it, there are some commonalities between businesses and cars. Both are only as functional as the sum of their components. If one or more of those components fails, the system collapses and problems start to surface. Those problems fall into two camps: Visible Problems and Invisible Problems.

In the example of the car accident, the Visible Problem is the exploded tire. You see the problem, but you can also hear and feel it at the same time. Its presence is obvious. Just imagine driving a car with a missing tire – that's quite scary.

The under-inflated tire, by comparison, is the Invisible Problem. It stays hidden from the perception of the driver until the moment of catastrophic failure.

A visual representation of this concept is the image of an iceberg. Visible Problems are what you see above water. They are easy to see for you, your co-workers and stakeholders. Solving Visible Problems signals value creation to stakeholders and makes you look good in front of your co-workers.

But, as you go down the iceberg, visibility quickly decreases. Problems become harder to see and describe and eventually become invisible to your senses. But just because you don't see them doesn't mean they don't affect the system. It's quite the opposite.

Invisible Problems are at the root of many of the Visible Problems that are above the water. But because of their invisible nature, they often go undiagnosed, despite having a significant impact down the line.

The key to being a better Problem Solver

The concept of Visible and Invisible Problems applies to business in the same way it does for cars. I've said that before, but here is something new: Training your eye to identify and describe Invisible Problems, can make you a better problem solver.

It's only a slight shift in perspective, but it can make a big difference. Focusing your time and efforts to solve Invisible Problems is more efficient and it has greater impact in the long-term. To solve Invisible problems, you need to distinguish what’s important from what's urgent, then focus your attention on what's important.

There are three approaches we have identified as being helpful for spotting and defining Invisible Problems.

1. Start with a good question

The real challenge is often not the Solving-Part, but the Knowing-Part. Knowing which problems are the most important at any given time sounds easier than it actually is. This is especially true when you are part of a complex environment with a lot of circulating information, such as a large corporate workplace.

Here’s the good news: You don't need to know the problem to get started. All you need is to figure out the right question.

A good question can go a long way to helping you find the most relevant problems. It works like a magnifying glass, helping you to take on a new perspective and see things that you previously overlooked.

Some examples of good questions:

  • If everyone could only work for four hours a day, what would they stop doing?
  • What is no one talking about that keeps us from being a more creative and innovative company?
  • What process or habit is so engraved in our culture that it is hard to change?
  • What tasks consume the most time but are the least valuable to customers?
  • What are we doing at the moment that we need to stop doing?
  • If you were CEO, what’s the first thing you’d change?

2. Drill down with the 5 Whys Method

The five ways (or five whys) is an iterative technique to reveal the cause-and-effect relationship of a particular problem.

The idea is very simple: To identify the root cause for a problem, you repeat the question "Why?" five times. Each answer then forms the basis of the next question.

By using this method, you can take a Visible Problem and reveal the Invisible Problem behind it.

Example of this method in action:

  • Employees often miss important meetings and workshops. Why?
  • Emails and invites are often not read properly. Why?
  • Employees get too many internal emails, so it's hard to keep up. Why?
  • There are no best practices on how to write short, effective emails. Why?
  • Best practices are not documented in our company (Invisible Problem)

3. Understand problem layers with an Abstraction Ladder

Like cakes, companies often come in layers. Those layers go from very easily identifiable entities like individual employees to more abstract entities and ideas like departments or company culture. Invisible Problems can be hidden in any of these layers, but it's more likely that they will be found in one of the top layers.

Another way to visualise this is with an Abstraction Ladder. The Abstraction Ladder is a visual tool for understanding how language and reasoning evolve from the concrete to the abstract. The ladder is viewed as ascending, with concrete concepts at the bottom and abstract concepts at the top.

Whenever you encounter a visible problem, you can use the Abstraction Ladder to understand where the Invisible Problem is hiding.

How it works in practice: Sketch an abstraction ladder of your company that starts with "Single Employee" and goes up to "Whole Company". Whenever you encounter a problem, you can take a look at each step in the ladder and ask yourself "What is happening on this layer, that contributes to the problem?

Why this can have a big impact

In the beginning, I explained the concept of Invisible Problems by talking about under-inflated tires. That example may seem far-fetched and exaggerated,  but I would argue against that view.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 1/3 of Americans are driving with under-inflated tires. And since 10% of fuel is used to overcome energy resistance, this has a significant impact. Experts estimate that Americans waste 1 billion gallons of fuel per year due to underinflated tires because they are unaware that they are driving with under-inflated tires. In numbers, that is between $2.8 billion and $3.4 billion a year on gas. Let that number sink a bit.

It is a great example because businesses suffer from the same problems. Problems that stay under the radar continually eat away the efficiency and productivity of the entire company. Even small problems can have a significant cumulative effect if left unchecked. Solving those problems can, therefore, have a big impact. But it requires a change in perspective first.

Edited and proofread by David Kingsbury

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