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Based on an article of the same name by Vincent A. LaZara,1999

Until recent years, approaches to people with problems in living have been dominated by a defect or problem approach. The medical and psychoanalytic models being the best know examples of this tradition. Adherents of defect approaches assume that pathological, social deviant behavior is the most important feature to observe about human functioning. Deviant behavior is attributed to stable states inside the person, the cause of which occurred some time removed from the present. [Wine, 1981]. We have become increasingly aware of the problems inherent in such approaches, but find the paradigm difficult to change. This difficulty is not just because all of our laws and regulations are designed to support the defect or problem model, but because paradigms are what Kuhn calls this phenomenon ‘the incommensurability of competing paradigms’.

Since new paradigms are born from old ones, they ordinarily incorporate much of the vocabulary and apparatus, both conceptual and manipulative, that the traditional paradigm had previously employed. But they seldom employ these borrowed elements in quite the traditional way. Within the new paradigm, old terms, concepts and experiments fall into new relationships with the other. Thus, communication across the revolutionary divide is inevitably partial. [Baar, 1988]

Even the Thomas Szasz coined ‘people with problems in living’ which I have adopted to avoid labeling, carries the meme of ‘problem’. LaZara, in a quite different context of business management, raises some interesting questions about a problem orientation.

He asks: What would you say is the first step in the problem solving process? The common-sense answer that comes to mind is: “define the problem”. Unfortunately, this is an instance where common sense can lead us astray. Conceptualizing problem solving with this problem-focus paradigm simply does not facilitate the practice of solving problems because it has a fatal flaw: it is based on an ambiguous concept.

When people respond to the question “so, what’s the problem?”, they might be referring to any number of things, including ignorance, annoyances, confusions, paradoxes, etc., or dimensions, my problem, your problem, the client’s problem, etc. So if people are asked to identify the problem, who knows what they will even be ‘looking’ for! The old saw that, every solution is someone else’s problem, shows the ambiguity of this context. This ambiguity of conception generally hampers the problem solving process by leading to solutions that are really irrelevant to client interests. Often it leads to a failure to even consider what a client’s interests are.

LaZara provides an examination of these difficulties to demonstrate that organizational problem solvers would do far better by making a paradigm shift to an alternative mental model: the goal-focus paradigm.

It turns out that when managers have a ‘problem-focus’, they often spend time and expend resources on situations that do not even warrant their attention. For instance, it might come to a manager’s attention that a certain employee is making mistakes operating certain kinds of office equipment. Having a problem-focus, she answers the question “So, what’s the problem?” with “This employee does not know how to correctly operate the equipment (problem = ignorance)”. To solve the problem, she sends him to a training program, which of course takes the employee off the job and costs money for his education.
To the manager viewing the situation from the alternative “goal-focus” perspective, things look very different. Now when it comes to her attention that an employee is not correctly operating certain kinds of office equipment, she asks herself “What is the goal in this office relative to competent equipment operators?” If the goal is to have adequate staff on hand to operate the equipment involved, and there are many other readily available employees on staff who are quite capable of operating that piece of equipment, then the ignorance of the employee in question would be viewed as irrelevant instead of being seen as a problem. Hence, no time or money would be expended to send him off to a training program. Rather, others competent to do the job would get those job assignments.

Clearly, the visionary nature of the goal-focus paradigm helps managers to conserve resources by striving to satisfy organizational needs, whereas the short sighted problem-focus paradigm leads them to waste resources by getting side-tracked with what may be personally irksome but organizationally irrelevant factors.

If this is true for business, the problems are increased in magnitude in the helping professions. That is because there is an extra goal or intentionality that must be addressed. Not only is there an organizational goal of the provider agency and the personal goals of the individual staff, but also there are the often-undefined goals of the client him/herself. A shift from a need or problem assessment to a goal assessment makes imminent sense in light of LaZara’s logic. Why do we assess for deficits or problems in the first place. The only logical rationale is ‘so that we can know how to develop an effective implementation plan to meet goals’. But whose goals do we plan to meet? If we have not developed a vision statement with the client to help him/her define their own goals, how do we know that the deficits we have defined are even relevant?

The first assessment should be a goal assessment. This is not as easy as it sounds, since people with severe and persistent problems in living [I have to change that] often do not own any goals, except perhaps avoidance. In fact, since the arrow of time for these people often points backwards to the time they perceive that they were victimized, they may not have even considered the future. “Optimism, the conviction that you can change, is a necessary first step in the process of all change” [Seligman – 1994]. If we don’t begin to focus clients on the future and help them articulate rational goals for the future and help them with implementation plans, we may not only be solving the wrong problems, but denying out clients of hope.

Dr. Vincent A. LaZara is a consultant who presents business development programs in the areas of organizational problem solving and strategic decision-making. He is also the Faculty Curriculum Coordinator for graduate and undergraduate general business programs at the University of Phoenix, Tucson Campus. ( and

©1999 The LaZara Institute for Critical Thinking