Real Leaders

The Difference Between American And British Problem Solving

My dad was recruited by an American valve company in 1965. Being a British citizen he filled a position that the company could not fill with an American worker. That being a highly skilled machinist with substantial knowledge in metallurgy. My Dad flew over the pond first and my Mother followed on the Queen Mary II. Two years later yours truly was born.

Over the course of my Dad’s life he continually learned and attained the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Something he would not have been able to do in England. Prior to his passing he had a number of US patents to his name in the valve industry.

In my high school years I remember speaking with my mother discussing the differences in how Britons and Americans approach problems. She said the key difference was that Americans would find a problem, come up with a plan and begin to quickly implement their ideas. She said that Americans seemed not to fear failure but rather embraced it when it occurred learning from the failures and moving on to the next course of action.

In contrast she said Britons would hold meeting after meeting until all theorized failures were accounted for and then they would begin to implement their ideas. If their ideas failed there were more meetings with more people and more time was spent in committee. She said, in her opinion, that the committee tasks became the work and the solution for the problem became an afterthought. By the time the Britons were beyond their committees the Americans had solved the problem. In her opinion Americans focused on the result far more often than the Britons.

My Mothers theory was reinforced for me while I watched an episode of the Ricky Gervais show. Karl Pilkington, one of the cohosts, was telling a story about his experience at a British station prior to joining the show. He explained that he was a wage employee or per hour employee in American, and the management kept calling meeting after meeting cutting into his paycheck and adding to his work load. Some of the comments I remember were Karl saying things like “They would spend 20 minutes discussing whether they should have croissants or doughnuts for the following meeting.” He further said it felt like “watching dung beetles pushing bullshit from one end of the room and back!” He said it was infuriating.

These are examples of what I like to call busy work. In other words doing work that does not add to a desired outcome. For a problem solver such as myself this phenomenon is absolutely infuriating. It reminds me of an old Seinfeld episode where George discovers the art of busy work. If you look annoyed and are short with people continually discussing the process you can actually go years before people discover you have accomplished nothing.

Well guess what, busy work is alive and well in America. With the advent of mass media both professional and novice you can actually make a profit for yourself as an expert pseudo solver. Yes you can continually drone on about a problem and all of its nuances over and over. Given enough frequency and coverage you may even be bestowed an expert by the masses with never uttering anything resembling a solution. You can write books and profit. You can do interviews and profit.

You can create committees and organizations and profit. The one thing you will never do is create a solution. Why? Because solutions require work in the unknown. You may or may not make a profit. So it’s far easier making money as an expert in problems than making money as an innovator in solutions. And this is where America is today, in my humble opinion.


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