40-Day Business Leadership Peak Performance Programme Day 8: Problems and Projects

So, how did you go yesterday? Did you choose a small problem to work with? Did you come up with a plan to go from where you are Now to Where you want to be instead?

The reason you must start small is to develop your skill around using the NOW, WHERE, HOW tool. Once you master handling smaller issues you’ll discover you can handle bigger problems. But today we’re going to develop this skill another small step forward.

Remember Ian the leading hand? Right now lends his tools to apprentices. In his ideal future he doesn’t lend tools to anyone because his apprentices have purchased the tools they need. He realised that he actually has a checklist of all the basic tools in his toolbox. He photocopied the list and then told each of the apprentices that he would no longer be loaning tools to them. He gave them the checklist and said that they should, likewise, go purchase the tools not currently in their toolbox.

Right now Ron has late paying customers and in the ideal future his customer pay their bills on time. He made up a list of every debtor, the amount owing and the time that had elapsed. He then decided to phone each of them up, explain the situation, chase payment and renegotiate their trade account terms.

David right now is overweight and in the ideal future he is his ideal target weight. He decided to keep a food journal over the next six weeks to see exactly what he is eating before he starts any diet.

Get the idea? You are going to be thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Got all that. Can we move on to the meaty stuff?” This is the meaty stuff. Honestly, if you can’t handle little stuff why do you feel you will cope with bigger stuff? This is like going to gym and starting on the small weights. At first you can’t see any change. Pay attention to how this programme makes you feel. Pay acute attention to your thoughts and feelings.

OK. Imagine this. Let’s pretend someone comes to you today … and then tomorrow … in fact day after day … after day and said, “I’ve got a problem … I’ve got another problem … and another problem.” After a while, how would you feel about that person?

Don’t read on until you can imagine that scenario and how it would feel.

Many people I’ve coached (you know I’m a coach, right?) say they’d have initially a neutral response – ‘OK, tell me about your problem’.

But then they say that if this happened again and again – and kept happening – they’d start to feel concerned if not even more negative feelings i.e., annoyance, frustration, concern, anger. At some level they begin to judge this person. They might think this person is immature or doesn’t really know how to do their job. At some point you may even start devising strategies in your mind to distance yourself from this person.

You need to slow down today and think this scenario through because you’ve experienced this. I do not want some cursory nod of recognition. Really feel it.

You must notice when you zone out or disengage and get annoyed that it isn’t going fast enough for you. Pay very close attention. This is what business leaders do worldwide.

“I’m paying you a lot of money Priestley, can we get to the point?”

This is exactly what happened for Jane. Jane is the registered nursing administrator in a critical care unit in a geriatric hospital. When I asked Jane to collect problems the biggest problem she faced were ‘minor interruptions’.

Over a six-week period Jane discovered that her nurses were interrupting her on average 148 times per day! In some cases subordinates were asking Jane to resolve benign issues they were more than capable of resolving. In some cases, junior staff were reverse delegating and getting Jane to do their work for them!

“Jane I’ve got a problem.” “Jane I’ve got another problem. Jane can you …? Jane I can’t … ” Problem … problem … problem.

OK, now imagine someone comes to you and says: “I’ve got a project. I want to discuss a project.” How do you feel now? Think about your response before you read on.

Most people feel interested, curious, intrigued – more positive feelings. Most people say something like: “I’m interested. Tell me more.” Pay attention to your response to the word project.

So what is it about a project that makes us feel more positive and resourceful and what is it about a problem that makes us feel more negative? (It’s the same amount of letters, by the way, and both start with the prefix ‘pro’!)

Here’s something interesting. Your brain processes experiences and thoughts in different parts of your brain.

fMRI and PET scans show us where the brain processes information depending on whether you are under stress or in a relaxed state. They show us that the brain even processes words like ‘problems’ and ‘projects’ in different parts of the brain!

The fMRI scan below shows a projecton the left; and a problem on the right. The red blob at the bottom is the spinal column. The brain is processing those stimuli differently.


Generally, a project triggers different cognitive activity in the prefrontal cortex (forebrain on the left) – associated with imagination, planning, evaluating and so on. People still feel challenged but in a positive, resourceful way. You can see brain resources (red) in the pre-frontal cortex.

Problems tend to trigger the parts of our brain associated with flight or fight! The body literally prepares for potential conflict. In the image on the right the blood is actually going to neurones that gee you up for flight or fight. So there is a different observable biochemical response to problems and projects.

How many times have you had to make a big decision and got all flustered and the words wouldn’t come (except swear words) and then later – once you calmed down – you knew what to decide or say? The creative, rational thinking is pre-frontal activity. If you are upset the brain sends all those decision making resources elsewhere!

Define ‘project’ 

What does the word project mean? If I ask people to define what a project is they say things like: timelines, beginning, middle and end, defined, clear targets, accountabilities i.e., time, scope, specification, cost and a close out. Projects can be quite complex but the components are usually perceived as manageable. Projects are more concrete, more specific or specified even if they have complexities.

Define ‘problem’ 

What does the word problem mean? Problems are often described as complications, messy, frustrating and so on. Problems feel more abstract and open ended. More complicated.

I once worked with a military surgeon who used to perform operations in the field. He said he would prefer a complex operation to a complicated operation any day.

Turn your problems into projects

For whatever reason, your brain, neurologically, seems to prefer projects to problems. When I work with clients we first collect problems and then we turn them into projects. Essentially I am asking you to play a game.

What if your problems were projects? How would they be different? So, let’s pretend that you don’t have problems anymore … you now have projects. Turn your problems into projects.

So the upside down rocket – while being a problem – now becomes a project called turn the rocket the right way up.

(All project managers know that a project needed a working title to focus effort.)


I want you to grab a dictionary and look up the definition of the word problem … and then project. Then look at your list of problems, pick an easy one and play with the idea that is now a ‘project’. If this was a project, what would you be doing differently?

Don’t spend a lot of time on this. Just enough so you get the basic concept. Problems to projects. Your brain likes projects better than problems. It responds differently. So play with the idea: pick a small problems and turn it into a project.

Andrew Priestley is a qualified business leadership coach with clients worldwide. He is the author of The Money Chimp, Starting and How Money Flows Through Your Business. You can contact him through www.andrewpriestley.com

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It goes without saying that this is for information only and The Author  cannot be held responsible for any losses or damages that occur as a result of reading this material.

© 2017 Andrew Priestley/TCE Ltd

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