What is the Real Problem?

When something goes wrong it can be useful to take time to scale the impact and to ask ‘What is the real problem?’

In the immediate aftermath of something going wrong, it can be easy to assume that it is a much worse calamity than it actually is. This is because our first response to adversity is an emotional one and our emotions can mislead us into seeing what has happened as a catastrophe.

Taking time to identify the real problem can help you to gain a more accurate assessment of what has happened and its true impact. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Imagine you are conducting an experiment and through a genuine mistake on your part, you do something wrong, ruining it and making your results worthless. What is the real problem here?

Mistakes in labs and on field work happen all the time, yet research still goes forward. The real problem here is that you will need to redo the experiment. You may need to order some new supplies or recruit some more participants. All of that may take time. These are, of course, real and genuine problems but they are problems you can do something about. You can create an action plan, recruit support from peers and your supervisor to help, reorder the supplies and set up the experiment to run again. After that the only problem that remains will be the last time – but again you can adjust for this by relooking at your project plan. 

Or imagine you are presenting a paper at a conference and you misspeak, you refer to the wrong concept or say something which is incorrect. What is the real problem here? 

At the moment the real problem is that you misled the audience and that some of them will know what you said is incorrect. However, if you correct yourself, point out that you’ve noticed your mistake and apologise, the audience will accept that you misspoke. Anyone who speaks in public regularly will know that this happens all the time and after the session most people won’t remember that it happened.

The problem in both instances comes when we allow our emotions to overpower our responses. If you feel embarrassed by your mistake with the experiment, you might be unwilling to admit your mistake and so don’t order replacement supplies or tell anyone else. You may even avoid coming in for a few days – thus the work of an afternoon to restart work on the experiment has now taken a week.

Or in your presentation, if you don’t point out your own error or become embarrassed and start berating yourself in your head while still speaking, you may make more mistakes and your audience may lose confidence in you.

The key is to take control and ownership of the error as soon as possible. People are generally forgiving of honest mistakes – and it will help you to be forgiving on your own. Ground the mistake by focussing on the real problem and you will be able to start identifying solutions more quickly.

It will also allow you to genuinely get a sense of the scale of the problem. If it is that something huge has happened, then you can act on that by speaking to your supervisor and those close to you. You may need to alter your timelines or your funding arrangements, for instance.

If you feel so overwhelmed by what has happened that you can’t identify any solutions, that is your brain’s way of telling you that you need another brain to help you out – again this might be your supervisor or a peer or perhaps a counsellor in Student Services.

When something goes wrong accept your initial emotional response by grounding yourself back in reality – ask yourself what the real problem is and then you can focus on what you need to do next. After all, as a PGR student, problem solving is something you’re good at.