Leadership, Resources

Somebody Else’s Problem

One of my favourite fiction writers is Douglas Adams, best known for his five part Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy. (Yes it is a five part trilogy, that’s the most logical thing about it actually). Among the most memorable ideas in that series is something called the “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”. It’s described this way:

An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.
The narration then explains:
The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that 999,999,999 times out of a billion it’s simpler just to take the thing away and do without it……. The “Somebody Else’s Problem field” is much simpler, more effective, and “can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery.”
This is because it relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somebody_Else%27s_Problem)
Most decent leaders have a hard time seeing things as Somebody Else’s Problem. Instead, they are the people who step up, step in, and step on the gas to find a solution. I enjoy people who don’t experience life as bystanders and encourage my children to follow the example we are trying to set of being activists rather than observers in most areas of life. I believe it’s true that every strength contains its own weakness, and as I reflect on the end of another year in my own life and many leaders I’m spoiled to interact with this seems particularly true. I am learning, and now becoming more deliberate about it, that most problems actually are somebody else’s. In some cases I can play a part by advising or assisting, but I need to be careful to not take onto myself the emotional or practical responsibility of things that are properly not mine to deal with. This is as true in personal relationships as professional situations. One of the many useful resources that help me figure out whether a problem is mine or somebody else’s is the book The One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey. It’s quick, pointed, memorable, and practical. Which is what those of us who take on too many problems usually need. What are your strategies and tricks for determining if something is your problem or somebody else’s?