Opportunities, Not Challenges


Work is hard. Sometimes the easiest part of the day is deciding what to have for lunch, especially when there are more things going sideways than right. When this happens, it’s important not to let the challenges and complexities get to you. This is a lesson that took me a very long time to learn, but my lightbulb moment came when I received advice to rethink my approach to problems and issues as opportunities, instead of challenges. It’s been two months since I received the suggestion and while I haven’t always adhered to this new mantra, I’ve learned a lot. Here are my three biggest takeaways.

Redefining your problems as “opportunities” emphasize positivity.

Challenges can foster negativity, especially if they stack up. This will lead to loss of motivation, lack of momentum, and dwindling morale. In my experience when this happens, the team pays closer attention to what isn’t happening and as a result, progress and productivity turns into correcting deficiencies in skills or gaps in knowledge. In other words, the team starts to focus on what they can’t do.

Opportunities, however, curate positivity because they focus on making positive changes and positive contributions. An opportunity can be better deconstructed into parts since the process focuses on utilizing the team members’ strengths. If a challenge is what the team can’t do, then an opportunity is what the team can do. This makes it much easier to stay motivated and engaged until the problem is resolved or the severity mitigated. Success becomes much more attainable when everyone is working at their best.

Challenges are exhausting and overwhelming.

The word “challenge” itself conjures a mental image of something physically and mentally taxing. Teams can become so overwhelmed and exhausted by challenges that it’s hard to see what kind of progress is being made. Rebranding a problem as an opportunity, instead of labelling it a challenge, gives everyone and everything room to breathe and settle. This, I’ve discovered, makes it easier to find progress, particularly if stakeholders become anxious or nervous. Even though they may not appreciate a decision to halt progress for a review or a retrospective, they actually will end up benefiting the most from the opportunity – just as they suffer the most in a challenge.

I was part of a team for a project that became so mired by challenges it felt like we spent six weeks spinning our wheels in mud and getting nowhere. We had so many meetings and discussions centering on these problems and the challenges we were having trying to mitigate them that it blocked any visibility into actual progress made. It wasn’t until the team decided to pause and review our work that we realized how much progress we actually made. We ended up discovering that we had completed 12 smaller, but equally critical, tasks during the time that we had been so focused on resolving and mitigating challenges associated with four or five big tasks.

Opportunities encourage learning.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel more productive when and if I learn something. Problems and issues are ripe with the potential for learning experiences, but the way to take advantage of that depends on how they’re approached. When we think of a problem as a challenge, all that really matters is that it gets resolved. There’s very little emphasis on learning from the challenge unless it becomes recurring.

When we think of a problem as an opportunity, though, we remind ourselves and our team members to slow down and learn. In doing so, focus shifts away from solution to process. Yes, the solution is important, but being able to discover different ways to reach the solution allows everyone to improve (or even change) their skills. The process therefore becomes more transparent and more conduce to learning. Very rarely is the answer or a solution so black and white or right and wrong. Opportunities allow us to see the “greyness” in our work because we learn to expand our thinking.

In effect, opportunities allow us to work more offensively and proactively. Challenges keep us defensive and reactionary…is that really a smart way to work?

Meganne Lemon is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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