You and your team have just solved a problem. It was difficult. It took some creative thinking. The solution now in place, forward progress resumes — for a while. Suddenly, a new problem appears. Progress halts, and you're back in deep yogurt.
Investigating what happened — and that can take time — you discover that at least some part of this second problem is traceable to the solution you found for the first problem.
It's a pattern so familiar that we have a name for it: "unintended consequences." The term arose in the context of economics, but the concept is so useful that it has been applied in politics, game design, engineering — everywhere.
In problem solving, we can use the concept to help limit the risk that a solution to one problem creates a new one.
Probably there are numerous ways for solutions to create new problems, but here are a few of those more common in my own experience and the experiences of my clients.
- Missing knowledge or incorrect knowledge
- We didn't know what we needed to know to get it right the first time, or some of what we "knew" was wrong.
- Test what you do know for completeness and correctness. How do you know what you know?
- Dogma, politics, budget, and schedule
- We tend to be biased in favor of candidate solutions that are consistent with our cherished beliefs, or which satisfy political, budgetary, or schedule constraints; we tend to eliminate from consideration, prematurely, those that do not. And sometimes, when these factors get in the way, we don't even see some workable solutions.
- What are the dogma, political, budgetary, or schedule factors affecting your problem? How biased are you?
- Dirty work
- We tend to be biased in favor of
candidate solutions that are consistent
with our cherished beliefs or with
external organizational constraints
- When the full solution requires that we grapple with parts of the problem that we find distasteful, dull, or pedestrian, we can be so averse to that part of it that we do a bad job of it.
- What part of what you need to do is distasteful or low status work?
- Subtlety and difficulty
- Even when we have access to all the information we need, the problem can be difficult to solve properly. A solid solution might require seeing the world from perspectives with which we have little experience.
- Get fresh eyes. Talk to people who have the perspective you need.
- Illusory similarity
- Sometimes we notice similarities between the problem at hand and problems previously solved. Then, without stopping to prove that they are similar enough, we apply methods that worked in the past.
- Look for proof that this problem is close enough to the problem previously solved. If you can't find proof, ask whether the differences really matter.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Should I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
- When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets,
rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex
politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes
hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work,
our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
- Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"
- In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity
at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
- The Tyranny of Singular Nouns
- When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept,
such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all
solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
- Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
- And on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.