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:
- Obstacles to Compromise
- Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is
rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: II
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized
experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups
use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common.
Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog.
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking.
Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
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