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:
- When All Your Options Are Bad
- When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines
to finding your way to a good outcome.
- 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?
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed
when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's
one way to get a clue.
- Call in the Right Expert
- When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts.
That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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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.