Problem vs. challenge and the cost of getting things wrong

Problem vs. challenge and the cost of getting things wrong

Whether something’s a problem or a challenge is simply a matter of perspective, right? Well, not exactly.

Let’s say there’s $100 on the other side of a large wall. A pessimist might focus on the seemingly insurmountable problem of the wall and feel immediately defeated, while an optimist might focus on the possibility of climbing the wall and feel motivated by the challenge.

Those who see the situation as a challenge rather than a problem might indeed have a psychological advantage, but it is he or she who questions the very nature of the problem that has the biggest advantage of all.

The reason being that we often fail to question the validity of our problems or step back to take in the whole picture. Then, when it comes to more complex situations, it’s easy to misdiagnose a problem or put our focus on the wrong challenges, not realising until it’s too late.

In my role as a marketing strategist, new projects (ideally) begin with a thorough written brief from the client. Two of the most important ingredients of those briefs are a well-defined and carefully diagnosed problem and a list of the key challenges that stand between us and success. Yet, these elements are often either wrongly identified or confused with one another.

In this article, we’ll start by getting clear on the etymology of the terms problem and challenge, then start to untangle their meanings through the lens of the current pandemic. Lastly, we’ll look at how problems and challenges apply in our daily professional lives.

Let’s begin at the beginning

The word problem in its original Greek form is proballein. If we break this down we get ballein, or ‘to throw’, and pro, which means ‘before’. Put it together and—in Greek, at least—the word meant ‘something thrown before you’. In late Middle English (c. 1430), a problem was more to do with the questions or riddles ‘thrown’ before academics—especially mathematicians.

The word challenge evolved from calumniari, a Latin word meaning ‘to accuse falsely’. As it arrived into Anlgo-French—as chalenge—it included the meanings ‘to dispute’, ‘to oppose’, or ‘to claim’. By Middle English, the word had morphed into challenge, which also meant ‘a call to fight’.

By the 1900s, however, both problem and challenge had overlapped to also mean ‘any difficult task’. This convergence is almost certainly why, today, the two words are used interchangeably—despite them being more useful as distinct terms.

Untangling the meanings

If the problem this article is addressing is indeed a sense of lexic apathy, or a haziness about the meanings of the words in a practical sense, then the challenge that falls upon me is to make you, the reader, either care or to effectively illustrate the difference. Let’s start by breaking down the nature of problems and challenges.


If a problem exists in a forest and there’s nobody around to care, is it still a problem?

A problem doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s born the moment it gets in the way of something we want (or don’t want). If a problem doesn’t affect us then, well, it’s not our problem.

When only a few coronavirus cases were confined to a far flung region of China, the rest of the world didn’t seem particularly troubled. As the virus spread, however, the situation rapidly became a problem for a growing number of people as it threatened their health, the people they cared about, and their way of life.

A problem in its purest form then, as in the example above, is merely a situation or state that we encounter and that affects, or that might affect, something we care about.

The importance of exploring a problem fully is that we can often break a larger problem into its constituent sub-problems. For example, the rate of infection is something distinct from the rate of mortality and each can and should be looked at as being distinct—as solving one does not necessarily solve the other. By isolating these sub-problems we can more effectively determine the most important problems to solve and better allocate resources.


If coronavirus and its inherent characteristics are the problems thrown before us, then the challenges we choose to accept represent the sum of our response.

That is a key difference. Unlike a problem, a challenge isn’t something we encounter it’s something we choose—or rather choose to accept. It’s meaning is imbued with a sense of will—to oppose, dispute, or claim. We, as a global population, ideally must rise to the challenges of slowing and eliminating the coronavirus, while mitigating its effect on our present and future lives through aggressive action and altruistic sacrifice. In essence, the challenge is where we choose to spend our energy in response to the threat that a problem poses.

A challenge can tackle a problem head on, target a secondary consequence of a problem, or act as a preventative measure against something that has the potential to develop into a problem.

To tackle the coronavirus head on means to rise to the most pressing challenges. If the problem is the mortality rate, the challenge is reducing that rate. If the problem is the rate of transmission, the challenge is slowing it. And so on. To eliminate the virus long term, the global scientific community has accepted the challenge of developing a globally available vaccine.

Meanwhile, there are myriad peripheral problems that call us to action. If the virus spreads more readily by airborne transmission, the challenge is to reduce that type of transmission—hence masks and social distancing. If the problem is personal relationships are suffering due to lack of physical contact, the challenge is to find other means to compensate, such as more reliance on communicating via technology.

There are also challenges that are purely preventative. If a hospital expects the rising number of new cases in the area to eventually outstrip the number of available ventilators, the challenge is to prevent this from ever becoming a problem by sourcing additional ventilators in advance.

In all of these situations, the problem is why we act and the challenge is how. The problem is the situation and the challenge is the response. When we ignore the problem it gets worse; when we overcome the challenge things get better.

Getting practical

The stakes during a pandemic are, clearly, astronomically high, but, even in our daily professional lives, there are always stakes we need to manage and consider.

New projects or endeavours always carry stakes, whether it’s time, money, or reputation. The greater the stakes, the more important it is to get the diagnosis of the problem correct and direct resources toward those challenges most closely tied to success. For every degree off you are now, you’ll find yourself exponentially further away from your goal as time passes. It might seem like a quick win at the time, but the inevitable need to correct your course becomes ever more costly.

In my role as a marketing strategist, I’ve received briefs from global brands with colossal  budgets that have unknowingly misdiagnosed the problem they were planning to invest all their budget into solving or misunderstood the challenges that were worth tackling. At my previous agency, Chello, we invented the ‘Brief Clinic’—a two-hour diagnosis workshop that ensured: (a) we were solving the right problem and, (b) we had mapped out and selected the most valuable challenges.

The point being, always interrogate the common understandings of a project. Never assume the problem identified by a client, colleague, or superior is the problem that needs to be solved. On further investigation, most problems can be uncovered as by-products of a less visible, deeper-rooted problem. Likewise, the obvious challenges are not always the ones that will get you to the end result once overcome.

Next time you’re faced with a problem, ask yourself, ‘What makes this so?’ Don’t be afraid to dig into the underlying assumptions or question the story the data is telling you. Sometimes the problem is obvious, but occasionally there’s a more pressing problem lurking under the surface. Likewise, take a step back and think laterally about what else could be causing the problem.

Finally, be careful about which challenges you decide to direct your resources towards. There’s a cost to changing course or having to undo your hard work. Ask yourself, ‘Which are the biggest problems I can solve by overcoming the least strenuous challenge?’ Or, ‘Which challenge, if overcome, would render the other challenges inconsequential or significantly easier?’