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Is this a Problem to Solve? Or a Tension to Navigate?

I used to work for a social service agency. This agency got funding from the government who set up various guidelines and reporting measures that we needed to abide by. Every now and then they would add various compliances that our organization needed to meet. Especially when it came to reporting and documentation. What that meant for our agency was that instead of spending more time giving our clients a valuable service, we needed to spend time in the office writing reports and documenting the day. It caused a tension, a stress between our service values and our mandated responsibilities. So we had a few choices to make sure that our clients were receiving supports that benefited them. We could downplay our compliance obligations, or we could wrestle with that tension and learn how to do it better. There wasn’t one easy way. There wasn’t a problem that we could solve that would resolve the issue. It was a tension that we’d have to navigate.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of hearing Calvin Seminary’s President speak. During his talk he asked the question, “Is this a problem to solve? Or a tension to navigate?”

We all love to solve problems. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, creates value for those involved in the problem, it’s something that we can be proud of. It happens all the time in our organizations, managers search for the problem and quickly move to resolve that problem. But here’s the problem with problems and it stems from this old adage of, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

If all you have is a drive for resolution, everything looks like a problem to be solved.

Think of scaffolding for a moment. All the bars running this way and that, creating a tension that supports the person standing on top of that scaffolding. If you were to “solve the problem of that tension” you would no longer be able to stand on that scaffolding, it would be useless. Tension is required for that scaffolding to do its job. Tension is required for that scaffolding to serve its purpose. Tension is required for that scaffolding to be useful to those around it.

So take a look at your organization. What’s your main focus? Are you only looking for problems to solve? Or also tensions to navigate?


Jason Dykstra

Jason is a Conflict Management Specialist who is helping organizations and congregations move from conflict situations to creative solutions. He specializes in relational and communication issues and uses his experience and training in mediation, group facilitation, conflict management coaching, speaking and teaching to aid you and your surroundings to better… MORE >

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