Being Problem-Oriented vs People-Oriented, What’s the Difference?

Here’s an interesting leadership thought exercise. Let’s say your team is walking along lengthy paths, and there are a bunch of boulders in the way along the path. Which of these is your initial reaction?

a) Run ahead on the paths and remove all the boulders


b) Make sure each team member has a pickaxe and crowbar, to remove boulders

I’ve found that many top-down management initiatives from leaders fall into one of these two categories. You can be problem-oriented, in which you are trying to solve problems and remove impediments for people. This usually means streamlining or removing processes or adding new processes. Alternatively, you can be people-oriented, in which you are trying to hire and grow people who can solve problems on their own.

Both of these approaches have their pros and cons. Being problem-oriented has the benefit of velocity, in that you are enabling people to work faster and focus on their core goals, not on removing boulders. This can also be more scalable. After all, we build roads and highways and bridges for cars to move quickly from one place to another; we don’t expect each car to have its own ability to drive through forests and over rivers. But the challenge is that you will spend more and more of your time running around trying to remove boulders because the boulders will never stop appearing.

As for being people-oriented, it is a very well-known challenge and I have spoken at length in previous blog posts about hiring and training. For this approach to work, you have to truly hire the right people, furnish the right tools (giving them a broom won’t help with boulders), and provide the right training and opportunities for growth.

What’s interesting is these approaches tend to be at odds with one another in organizations. If you are problem-oriented, the expectation is that people are following the process (i.e. stay on the road, don’t drive through the grass), and this can result in people not being able to adjust or tailor approaches for edge cases (what if there’s no road where I want to go?). This also stifles innovation (except for the persons designing the new processes, I suppose). But if you are people-oriented, then this can result in an inability to maintain quality or oversight across the team, and also can result in duplication of effort. (Imagine 3 or 4 trucks driving slowly side by side across a rocky field, instead of having a single bulldozer clear the way so the trucks can all follow a path and get across the field quickly. Now imagine some of those trucks getting stuck, or taking a non-optimal path across the field.)

Success will come with finding a way to utilize both approaches; understanding which situations and problems can be solved by a centralized approach, but still allow people to have freedom of motion to innovate when necessary. Your challenge, as a leader, is to understand and guide the organization through these approaches.

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