‘Houston, we have a problem’ – What Does It Mean To Have A Problem?


At the 2012 World Appreciative Inquiry conference I fell into conversation with Stefan Cantore. Stefan was busy thinking about ‘our love affair with problems’ in preparation for writing a chapter for a forthcoming publication (details at end). We had a great discussion about this that stayed with me and caused me further thought.

How do we know when we encounter a problem? While completing a personality profile questionnaire recently I noticed that I have a problem with the word problem. As the questionnaire asked me variations on how I deal with problems, I struggled to answer: the questions just didn’t connect. It would seem that I just don’t think in terms of problems and problem-solving: I don’t notice when I encounter them.

Trying to answer the questions I found it very hard to think of instances of recent problem-solving to help me. Did this mean I led a problem-free life? All became clear a few days later when I was working out how to fix something that had broken. I was going through a process in my mind of possible alternatives, seeking the resources and trying the solution out. Yes, you’ve guessed it, I was problem-solving only the word problem never entered my mind as a name for the activity I was involved in, and probably wouldn’t have occurred to me at all if not for my recent struggle with the questionnaire.


Problems and ‘Problems’

Talking to Stefan, and thinking about this, I wondered if we have problems and Problems. That is, things we sort out all the time, almost without noticing – ‘problems’ – and some other challenges that are similar but different – ‘Problems’. This led me to ask, what happens when we label something ‘Problem’. What is the purpose, impact and outcome of naming some particular thing a Problem. ‘Houston, we have a problem’ came to mind as one of the greatest examples of this act of labeling. What did it do? I suggest:


  1. It called attention to something. In this case the world’s attention
  2. It suggested this something was beyond the capacity of those so far involved
  3. It extended the system around the situation
  4. In this way it attracts resources to a situation
  5. It caused creativity – the creativity of the Apollo community in this instance is the stuff of legend.
  6. It acted to focus attention – I’m guessing many other activities at the Apollo base station were put on temporary hold!

So when someone in an organization calls ‘Problem’ we might argue that they are attempting to get focus, attention, resources and creativity applied to a situation to move it forward. They are also implicitly stating it is beyond the capacity of the existing system to move forward; that they need to connect to a bigger system. It’s an acceptable way of asking for help.


Problems from Heaven

David Cooperrider suggested that those who bring Problems are a gift, because they also bring a Dream. By labeling something a Problem and so asking for help the problem-bringer or namer is implicitly suggesting that there is still hope that things can be better, with the help of the wider system. So naming something a Problem also creates the possibility of hope.

So where does that leave us? I think we need a different word for the small stuff that we do everyday that gets caught up under the umbrella of ‘problem-solving’ making it look as if problems are everywhere.

I think Problem, used wisely, can act as a clarion call for resource and action. I think it needs to be recognized as a call for wider system involvement. The Apollo astronauts couldn’t resolve the situation developing on their spacecraft with their resources, they knew that and called the developing situation a Problem. The wider system responded. They responded emotionally and experimentally. They tried things out and then they tried other things out. They involved everyone with all their different skills to find a way forward that would allow the astronauts to live. People may have used their rational skills, but they were motivated by their emotional connection to the whole project and to the individuals in danger.

Problem gets a bad name in organizations because it is not recognized as a call for an emotional and relational response. Rather it is seem as a call for a rational analysis, devoid of emotional content.  Appreciative Inquiry as an approach is tailor made for helping organizations create a response to the clarion call of a Problem that is emotional and relational while utilizing all the rational abilities of the organization as appropriate. There is nothing wrong with calling Problem when the circumstances warrant it, only in our response.


Stefan contributed to the Handbook of the psychology of organizational development, leadership and change (Wiley-Blackwell) published in 2012


Other Resources

More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more 'Thought Provoking' articles and more about Appreciative Inquiry in the  Knowledge Warehouse.

Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with LeadershipCulture change and with employee Engagement.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715