Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 52;   December 28, 2016:

Problem Displacement by Intention

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When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
The city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

The city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea. According to WebCite, the walls, which surround the town, are about two kilometers long, and up to four to six meters thick on the landward side. In places, they are 25 meters high. Defensive structures of this kind also served as symbols of the power and invulnerability of the protected towns.

The modern analog of the walled town is the gated community. Although the perimeter defenses of a gated community do serve to reduce crime within the perimeter, they do nothing to reduce the crime rate in the larger environment. They therefore serve to displace the crime problem from within the perimeter to the environs.

As we saw last time, solving problems sometimes creates new problems. This phenomenon is called problem displacement (PD), though as I mentioned, the newly created problem or problems can be very different from the original problem. When that happens, problem replacement (PR) is probably a more accurate term. Although both PD and PR are often unintentional, they can also be most intentional indeed.

Below are some examples of intentional PD or PR in the organizational setting. In these fictitious examples, the Iris project needs (but doesn't have) a team member with knowledge of the (fictitious) HSL programming environment. The Hibiscus project does have HSL experts and often works with HSL. The Carnation project generally competes with Iris for staff and other resources. The Daffodil project depends on Carnation. Summary: Carnation Competes with Iris, Hibiscus has HSL experts, Daffodil Depends on Carnation, and Iris is Independent, but lacks HSL expertise.

PD for damage control
Suppose that Carnation's team member, Houdini, has truly magical HSL skills. If Iris is higher priority than Carnation, the sponsors and project managers of Carnation and Iris might agree to temporarily assign Houdini to Iris instead of Carnation. Overall it isn't a good solution, but it is the least bad.
Iris no longer has an HSL skill shortage; now Carnation does. Staff reassignments like this are examples of intentional problem displacement.
PR as a problem-solving approach
In some cases of staff reassignment, the "donor" project can accommodate the temporary reassignment, with minimal sacrifice, because both the donor and receptor project managers can cleverly rearrange their schedules.
Instead of solving the receptor's problem alone, donor and receptor solve their shared staff problem together. Replacing the original problem with a new problem makes a painless solution possible.
PD as a problem-solving approach
In an example of problem displacement, Iris transfers the HSL work to the Hibiscus project, which is heavily involved with HSL. Hibiscus is willing to take on the work (and budget) because it fits so well with what they're already doing. This eliminates the need to reassign Houdini.
Some problems are actually in the wrong "place" when we first notice them. We can solve them using problem displacement.
PD or PR as a political weapon
Suppose that Iris's Problem displacement that threatens
the health and success of the
enterprise is not uncommon
sponsor, Irv, regards Carnation's sponsor, Cheryl, as a rival. In what many would consider a breach of ethics, Irv tries to get Houdini reassigned from Carnation to Iris, not only because he needs Houdini's HSL expertise, but also because the reassignment will threaten his rival Cheryl's success.
This would be intentional, nefarious problem displacement. It threatens the health and success of the enterprise, and it is not uncommon. In a more sophisticated version, Irv's real target is Dan, who leads Daffodil, which depends on Carnation. By disrupting Carnation, Irv disrupts Daffodil.

By now I hope it's clear that so-called "unintended consequences" are not always unintended. When next you hear of unintended consequences, think carefully. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why  Next Issue

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See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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