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:
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to
avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering
this kind of knowledge more systematically.
- The Questions Not Asked
- Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves
it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- New 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?
- Problem-Solving Preferences
- When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to
emphasize the goal or objective, while others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an
asset and annoyance.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 24: Big, Complicated Problems
- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
- And on May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
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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.