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4 Types of Problems 2

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If you know the type of problem you’re dealing with, you can handle it more effectively.  One of the best skills you can master in life is problem solving.  One of the keys to effective problem solving  is knowing what kind of problem you’re dealing with.  For example, is this a unique problem, a pattern of a problem, or an exception?  Knowing the type of problem helps you choose the most effective strategy.  In The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management (Collins Business Essentials) , Peter Drucker identifies four type of problems.

4 Types of Problem
According to Drucker, there’s four types of problems:

  1. Truly Generic (individual occurrence is a symptom; Two Different Kinds of Compromises)
  2. Generic, but Unique for the individual institution
  3. Truly exceptional, truly unique
  4. Early manifestation of a new generic problem

Generic or Exception
Is the problem generic or an exception?  Drucker recommends starting there:

The first questions the effective decision-maker asks are: Is this a generic situation or an exception?  Is this something that underlies a great many occurrences?  Or is the occurrence a unique event that needs to be dealt with as such?  The generic always has to be answered through a rule, a principle.  Strictly speaking, one might distinguish among four, rather than between two, different types of occurrences.

Truly generic
While many symptoms may vary, a lot of problems are actually generic if you look to the root cause.  Drucker writes:

There is first the truly generic, of which the individual occurrence is only a symptom.   Most of the problems that come up in the course of the executive’s work are of this nature.  Inventory decisions in a business, for instance, are not “decisions.”  They are adaptations.  The problem is generic.

Generic, but Unique for the individual institution
Sometimes a problem is generic, but unique in that you only face it once.  Drucker writes:

Then there is the problem that, while a unique event for the individual institution, is actually generic.

The company that receives an offer to merge from another, larger one will never receive such an offer again if it accepts.  This is a nonrecurrent situation as far as the individual company, its board of directors, and its management are concerned.  But it is, of course, a generic situation that occurs all the time.  To think through whether to accept or to reject the offer requires some general rules.  For these, however, one has to look to the experience of others.

Truly exceptional, truly unique
Every now and then, a problem truly is unique.  Drucker writes:

Next there is the truly exceptional, the truly unique event.   The power failure that plunged into darkness the whole of northeastern North America from St. Lawrence River to Washington D.C., in November 1965, was according to the first explanations, a truly exceptional situation.  So was the thalidomide tragedy that led to the birth of so many deformed babies in the early 1960’s.  The probability of these events, we were told, was one in ten million or one in  a hundred million.  Such concatenation of malfunctions is as unlikely ever to recur as it is unlikely, for instance, for the chair on which I sit to disintegrate into its constituent atoms.

Early manifestation of a new generic problem
Sometimes a new problem that at first seems unique, is really just the first instance of a new generic problem.  Drucker writes:

Truly unique events are rare, however.  Whenever one appears, one has to ask, Is this a true exception or only the first manifestation of a new genus?  And this, the early manifestation of a new generic problem, is the fourth and last category of events with which the decision process deals.   We know now, for instance, that both, the northeastern power failure and the thalidomide tragedy were on the first occurrences of what, under conditions of modern power technology or of modern pharmacology, are likely to become fairly frequent malfunctions unless generic solutions are found.

All Events But the Truly Unique Require a Generic Solution
For generic problems, you can use generic solutions.  Tailor the proven practices for your particular situation.  drucker writes:

All events but the truly unique require a generic solution.  They require a rule, a policy, a principle.  Once the right principle has been developed, all manifestations of the same generic situation can be handled pragmatically, that is, by adaption of the rule to the concrete circumstances of the case.  Truly unique events, however, must be treated individually.  One cannot develop rules for the exceptional.   The effective decision-maker spends time to determine with which of these four situations he is dealing.  He knows that he will make the wrong decision if he classifies the situation wrongly. By far the most common mistake is to treat a generic situation as if it were a series of unique events, that is, to be pragmatic when one lacks the generic understanding and principle.  This inevitably leads to frustration and futility.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Know the four types of problems.   The four types are: 1) truly generic. 2) truly unique.3) generic, but unique for the situation 4) new generic problem.
  • First identify whether the problem is generic or unique.  Misery loves company.  It’s great to know if the problem you’re facing is a problem that others have faced.   Chances are you’re not alone.  
  • Treat the root cause, not the symptoms.  To find the cause, you need to ask "Why?"  You might need to ask "why?" multiple times. 
  • Leverage the experience of others.  How have others solved the problem? Who can you learn from?  Who else might share the problem?
  • Use a principle-based approach to solving problems.    This builds on the idea of leveraging the experience of others.  What’s the underlying pattern or principle of the solution.  For example, I know one of the underlying principles for influence is "rapport before influence."  Knowing this, I adapt that principle to a variety of scenarios, whether it’s pitching a project or coaching a teammate.

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