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

Unintended Consequences

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

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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