Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 26;   June 25, 2008: Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

by

Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?

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.

Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launch

Ice on the launch pad on January 28, 1986, the day of the last Challenger Launch (STS-51-L). The unusually cold weather was well beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals of the solid rocket boosters were approved, and it most likely caused the O-ring failure. In meetings on the night before the launch, Morton Thiokol engineers and engineering managers confronted the problem. One of the candidate solutions was to recommend that the launch be scrubbed. Another was to recommend launch despite the weather. Politics, budget and schedule undoubtedly played roles in their decision. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view that decision as an aberration. NASA, as an organization, was seriously flawed at the time, and had made other decisions of equally questionable merit. See, for example, Howard S. Schwartz, Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay, New York University Press, 1992. (Order from Amazon.com) Photo by Michael Hahn, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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.

If you extend this list for your problem space, beware the unintended consequence of overconfidence. However complete your list becomes, unintended consequences might still emerge. Go to top Top  Next issue: Peace's Pieces  Next Issue

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Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
Wilson's Bird-of-paradiseNew Ideas: Judging
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
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How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
A virtual team as a networkVirtual Brainstorming: Part II
When virtual teams must brainstorm, they try to do so virtually. But brainstorming isn't just another meeting. There's a real risk that virtual brainstorms might produce inadequate results. Here's Part II of some suggestions for reducing the risk.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity, Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
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Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

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