Solving Problems

Our industry has many problems: a resource regime shift driven by global warming, a diminishing supply of labour, changing and increasingly expensive technologies and weak competitiveness, to name some of the more significant ones.

However, the truth is the fishing industry in Atlantic Canada has had serious problems of one kind or another pretty much from its very beginning.

The industry’s problems have been studied time and again for decades by different people and reports of the studies identify a similar pattern of issues and recommend similar solutions. It wasn’t so long ago that Gardner Pinfold studied the struggling lobster industry and a major government-industry effort led to the so-called MOU report in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The conclusions in those reports weren’t much different from those previously reached by the Kirby Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries in 1982. And that report quoted from previous reports decades earlier, to indicate the same problems had existed long before. As this indicates, we don’t make much progress in solving the industry’s problems from year to year or even decade to decade.

sunset-on-the-margaret-elizabethDespite the problems, the past couple of years have been relatively good ones. Why? What has really changed? Have we developed new resources or new markets, offered new or better products, recruited new people to the industry, or improved our operational efficiencies?

Apart from selling more products to China, we are doing much the same things in much the same ways that we always did but with fewer people.

Recent experience has been good mainly for two reasons: an improvement in market prices and a significant weakening of the Canadian dollar, allowing us to convert the foreign currency we earn in export markets into more Canadian dollars. Nothing the industry itself has done has created these fortunate circumstances. We have just been in the right place at the right time. It’s much the same as winning the lottery.

It’s also part of the cyclical pattern of the industry that keeps repeating. When things are good, we enjoy the ride and think they will continue. But they never do. Sooner or later, we go into the down part of the cycle and through another period of doom and gloom, similar to what is now happening with oil, minerals, and some other commodities. Fortunately for us, seafood has been on the up part of the cycle as other commodities have been on the down part of their cycles.

The extra revenue we have been getting from higher prices and more advantageous exchange rates has covered up the underlying problems for the time being but they haven’t gone away. In different circumstances, they will come back to haunt us again. As Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful investor has said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Early in my career, I spent a few years working with companies in financial difficulty, trying to keep them from going bankrupt. That was how I got into the fishery in the early 1980s, when practically the whole industry was bankrupt or close to it.

Over a five to six-year period, I worked with many different companies in the industry, to help them find ways to avoid bankruptcy and improve profitability. What was particularly curious was that none of the people I met during that time thought they were doing a poor job, even though there was lots of evidence that was the case. They were always victims of bad luck or the dastardly deeds of others.

I have never viewed life that way. Life is full of problems of one kind or another. Success comes not from the absence of problems but from how you deal with them — or not. I don’t believe in being a victim, I would rather take charge of my own destiny. Maybe that was why I was able to earn a pretty good living for a long time, because other people were willing to pay me to help them solve their problems.

I have spent my entire working career solving problems. It is something I have an aptitude for, was trained for and have had some considerable success at. I won’t go into the details of all that here but I will pass on some of the things I have learned.

Probably the most important lesson is that you can’t solve a problem unless you admit to having one. That is most often the hardest part.

chetticamp-area-19-031It is why the first step in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is to say, “I have a problem.” Once you are prepared to admit you have a problem, you can move on to finding a way to solve it. But if you don’t admit to having one, you won’t look for a solution, because you don’t think it’s necessary.

Once you admit to having a problem, you have to be able to define it. What, exactly, is the problem? Until you can define it and fully understand it, you can’t solve it. And truly understanding the nature of the problem and all its dimensions is probably the most time-consuming part of finding the solution. Unless and until you have a full, clear understanding of the problem, any solution you come up with will be incomplete and is not likely to work.

The way of the world is that no one defines the problem for us, so we have to figure that out for ourselves. We always start out with rather simplistic understanding of problems, usually thinking in terms of the symptoms, rather than what causes those symptoms. So we craft similarly simple solutions.

When it becomes clear the simple solution doesn’t work, we look at the problem again and discover we have missed some things. So we come up with a better solution. And that process continues. Sometimes, problems even take on new dimensions that didn’t exist before, requiring us to re-think what we are doing.

We rarely have full and complete answers but, at each stage, we make progress. That is how the mobile phones, television set, and automobiles we have today evolved from the much more primitive versions we used 10, 20, 50 years ago. And it is why the ones we will use 10, 20, 50 years from now will be much different from those we use today.

When a problem can be understood and defined, there are two parts to solving it. The first part is figuring out what to do. It isn’t necessarily easy but, in my experience, when you truly understand the problem, figuring out how to solve it often is not terribly difficult, either. But something I learned a long time ago is that nothing changed just because I could figure out the solution to a problem, if other people had to be part of the solution.

So the second part is really the hard one — getting the people who must be part of the solution to understand the problem, see the merits of the proposed solution, and become committed to implementing their pieces of it.

Significant problems very rarely can be solved by one person, working alone. In an industry or in a company, pretty much everybody carries a share of the blame for problems. That means everybody must be part of the solutions.

But getting people to arrive at a shared understanding of a problem, agree on a solution and become committed to implementing their part of the solution is extremely difficult. It requires a lot of skill in dealing with people, not just the skill of finding the answer to the problem.

If we now apply the thinking outlined above to the fishery in Atlantic Canada, I think we can see why problems do not get solved.

First, not everyone agrees there is a problem.

As I illustrated with a story in a previous column, some people can find ways to be comfortable even when times are not good for everyone and those doing well — or others fearful that things could get worse — usually don’t want things to change.

Lemaque-crabbers-MaY-2009-(14)Second, even if we recognize there is a problem, there is no consensus as to what the problem is. Different people define it differently, so there is no agreement on what needs to be solved. As the old saying goes, ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’

Third, people always seem to think the problem has been created by someone else, so it is easier — and more comforting — to blame others than to take ownership and actually do something to fix it.

Our industry is divided in so many ways that making significant progress in solving problems usually requires a crisis.

During the financial crisis of the early 1980s and the more recent crisis in the lobster industry starting in 2008, people simply couldn’t deny there were serious problems that had to be addressed, even if they couldn’t always agree on the best way to deal with them. But agreeing there was a problem at least created the possibility of finding a solution and significant progress was made, even if the answer wasn’t perfect.

On the other hand, the window of opportunity remains open only as long as the crisis persists. When the crisis diminishes, the will to change diminishes, as well.

As I suggested above, we currently don’t have a crisis that requires everyone to admit we have serious problems, so it is not likely we can make much progress in dealing with them. We don’t have a good track record in preventing problems — we usually wait for them to develop into a crisis.

But a crisis is looming.

Sooner or later, likely sooner, one or more of the problems we face will create a crisis. Already, the diminishing labour supply is impacting vessel operations and limiting the amount of processing that can be done. A rapidly diminishing shrimp resource seems likely to have a major effect on the viability of fishing enterprises, processing plants, and communities. A transition from crab and shrimp back to cod and capelin will make the labour supply problem worse and bring a whole new set of challenges besides.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Never waste a good crisis.” People will then be open to new ideas, so it will be time to work on solutions. Let’s start thinking about what they might be.

Robert Verge

Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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