In environmental science, and elsewhere, the term problem displacement describes what happens when solving a given problem creates a different problem. For example, sewage sludge disposal by incineration solves the sewage sludge disposal problem, but one consequence is air pollution. [Jänicke 1990] The term problem displacement is possibly a misnomer, because displacement typically refers to moving from one place to another. In most cases of problem displacement, the created problem or problems usually replace the original problem. For this reason, in these circumstances, I prefer the term problem replacement.
Problem replacement can also apply to problem solutions in organizations. It can be useful as a management tool, because it can clarify organizational status by accounting more accurately for all the costs of solving a problem. As an example, consider technical debt.
Technical debt is the collection of technology artifacts, arising by any mechanism, which we would like to revise or replace for sound engineering reasons. In many cases, if not most, organizations incur new technical debt as a consequence of solving some other problem. In our terms, much technical debt is the result of problem replacement.
For concreteness, consider upgrading a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Suppose that because of financial pressures, the company decides not to upgrade the hardware that supports the CRM software. And suppose further, as is common, that the latest version of the CRM software requires a hardware upgrade. Consequently, upgrading the CRM software is impossible, which means that CRM system users must maintain existing applications — and develop new ones — based on the (now outdated) CRM software. They must later repeat that work when the new system is installed. It therefore comprises technical debt.
The debt in this example is not due to shoddy workmanship or shortcuts in implementing CRM applications. Rather, it?s the direct result of ?solving? the company?s financial problems by postponing a hardware upgrade. It?s an example of problem replacement.
In most In most organizations, the costs of
retiring software technical debt are
usually charged to the Information
Technology (IT) function. That
practice can obscure the
actual source of the problem.organizations, the costs of retiring software technical debts of this kind are usually charged to the Information Technology (IT) function. In our example, the cost of IT is thus represented as higher than it actually would be without problem replacement. Likewise, the cost of financial management is correspondingly represented as lower than it would be without problem replacement. A more accurate accounting would allocate to the financial management function, rather than to IT, the costs of carrying and eventually retiring the technical debt.
Because problem replacement scenarios are common in organizations, they account for a significant fraction of technical debt. The overstatement of the costs of the IT function, and the corresponding understatement of the costs of other enterprise elements, make responsible management of the enterprise difficult.
Some replacement problems can be termed unintended consequences. Perhaps some technical debt is unintentional. But some solutions that entail problem replacement, especially those that burden political rivals, are most intentional indeed. We?ll explore examples of that phenomenon next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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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.
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- 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.
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costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
- Power Distance and Risk
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problems and to question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such
encouragement helps to manage risk.
See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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