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Peter Drucker used to say, “Don’t solve problems. Pursue opportunities.” It was great advice then; and even better advice today. Here’s why.

Where does growth come from? Personal or corporate, it makes no difference. None of us grows simply by being more efficient, or streamlined, or saving (time, money, whatever). We grow when we seen an opportunity, and pursue it.

How did Apple grow sales of $600 products in the middle of a severe recession, while Yahoo (a free product to consumers) crashed? How did Brazil create over 8% growth in 2010, while Greece was throwing “solution after solution” at their problems? How did some real estate companies grow, despite being surrounded by a sea of foreclosures?

They focused their effort, energy and resources on their opportunities, not their problems.

Some even stopped trying to solve their problems. Apple stopped trying to solve the personal computer’s shortcomings. That left it free to create a market for technologies that operate differently. Apple’s one-finger operation for iPods, iPads and iPhones is the result of seeing an opportunity to make technology respond to the human hand, not the other way around. They saw something that legacy technology companies couldn’t, while focused on solving the “keyboard” problem.

Even with two decades of lead time, voice recognition doesn’t work nearly as well as a swipe or a pinch.

What about the housing industry? Many brokers are still solving last year’s – last decade’s – problems. Trying to fit round pegs into square holes. Listen to their language: Can’t we make MLS work on an iPad? Can’t we make agents come to office meetings? Can’t we make sellers price their homes right? Nobody is asking: Would we really grow if any of these things suddenly occurred?

Decades of resources have been diverted into problems that probably have nothing to do with growth; and away from opportunities that might have mattered.

But shouldn’t we fix them?

I think Peter Drucker would say no. He would note that some problems are unsolvable paradoxes of our legacy organizational structures. He might even suggest that some people are actually not interested in solving them: They have decided the proposed gains wouldn’t exceed the costs to try.

More likely, I think Drucker would challenge us to ask a different question: Why is solving these problems important to our ability to grow? 

In twenty years of consulting practice, I’ve noticed that many of the most successful companies haven’t solved many of these recurring problems. Yet they consistently outperform competitors. Growth is clearly possible, even while such problems persist. Drucker’s lesson is that growth isn’t the same as repairs.

Yet we spend most of our time on problems, not enough on opportunities.

An example: Research tells us that today’s twentysomethings graduate college with high debt, remaining unmarried, living in their parents’ home into their thirties, and childless even longer. How does satisfying their real estate needs have anything to do with whether our agents attend meetings or sellers price their home right, when this generation may rent for years longer than Boomers, and due to technology, never visit our office ever?

Solving yesterday’s problems isn’t the same as building capacity to pursue tomorrow’s opportunities. They are two separate paths, just as being bad at math doesn’t automatically make you good at writing. We are often bad at both. We can be bad at getting agents to office meetings and bad at selling to Gen Y’ers.

Try this exercise: Make a list of all of your unsolved problems. Identify three. Ask yourself the following:

  • What would most likely happen if you simply stopped paying attention to this problem?
  • If you did solve this problem, what would its most likely impact be, on your actual growth?

I am reminded of an anecdote in Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. He noted that the American Psychological Association “… found over forty thousand studies on depression, but only forty on… joy, happiness or fulfillment.” Which begs the question: What would happen if we stopped focusing on our defects for a while, and paid more attention to what we could get done today?

Opportunities won’t fall into our laps. We have to make time to see them, understand then, then pursue them. Imagine if you eliminated just a few unsolved problem from your list. Just suddenly stopped talking about them?  Instead you used that time, energy, money to follow up some leads, some ideas, or simply talk to some customers.

What’s one month off, from a problem you haven’t solved in years?

Be bold. Chase opportunities. You will might be surprised.