When progress at work runs into an obstacle, we face a choice: either (a) dig into the problem, find its root causes, and address them; or (b) find a workaround and resume progressing toward our immediate objective; or (c) some combination of workarounds and partial solutions. The workaround option is tempting, because it almost always seems the most expedient, but it can have significant hidden risks that can actually make it the high-cost option with the greatest chance of preventing future progress.
Because short-term fixes are often the best option, formulating a general prescription for making the right choice in these situations is difficult. Nevertheless, a catalog of the risks of short-term fixes can be handy when the choice presents itself. So here's a start at that catalog of risks of short-term fixes.
- The risk of distorting resource allocation decisions
- Short-term fixes to a problem conceal the existence of the problem from all but those immediately affected. As a consequence, the general perception of the severity of the problem becomes distorted, making it seem less consequential than it is. If those in possession of this distorted perception include people responsible for resource allocation, the organization might have difficulty allocating necessary resources to address the root cause of the problem, which can delay resolution until the distorted perception is somehow corrected.
- Avoid these distortions by deploying a workaround reporting process. Whenever Short-term fixes are tempting, because
they almost always seem to be the
most expedient, but they can have
significant hidden risks that can
make them the high-cost optionpeople make the choice to employ (or invent and then employ) a workaround to a problem, they report what happened and how they responded. Tracking this data can reveal the frequency with which people encounter problems, some of which might share root causes.
- The risk of depleting scarce resources
- Some short-term fixes consume resources, which depletes the resources that might be needed to address the root causes of the problems. For example, consider a startup company that hopes to bring a disruptive technology to market. The company's investors, seeking short-term successes, press hard for reference accounts with household names. This short-term focus causes the start-up company to create a series of adaptations of their offering customized to the particular needs of a few targeted customers. The one-offs consume valuable resources that could have been used to develop the company's offering more completely for successful penetration and dominance of a single large market. The short-term focus on household-named customers leads the company to expend significant fractions of the resources it needs to become a market leader.
- Short-term wins in the marketplace are often worthy of substantial sacrifice. But we must monitor them carefully to limit their drain on resources needed for long-term success.
- The risk of biasing problem solutions
- When successful, short-term fixes can conceal the problem from the people who have the information needed to address its root causes properly. The result is obstruction of some portions of the solution space, which can lead to biased "solutions" that are not only less than optimal, but also unworkable in the long term. In some cases, the root cause is very simple, requiring almost no resources to resolve the problem, but because of the concealment arising from workarounds, solutions like these can be overlooked. For example, the "cause" might be that the person who encountered the problem didn't know that a superior alternative approach existed, and that using that alternative would have rendered the "problem" a nonissue. In this case, the root cause might lie somewhere in the training program, rather than in an asset or a procedure. By employing the workaround, the people who address the problem deprive the training program's authors of the knowledge that adjustments in training are needed. As a result, the organization might instead undertake a far more expensive and complex effort to alter the asset the untrained user was trying to employ inappropriately.
- With a workaround reporting process in place, it's possible to inform appropriate problem solvers about the need for solutions to recurring problems.
- The risk of irreversible workarounds
- Some short-term fixes entail altering some assets or procedures to avoid operations that can cause the problem to appear. If these alterations are reversible, the loss involves only the cost of making the alterations and then later reversing them, plus any costs of operating the altered assets above and beyond what the cost would have been if the root cause of the problem had been addressed.
- But the alterations might not be easily reversed. For example, if the short-term fix involves training employees to use an altered procedure, that training remains in the minds of the employees even after the long-term fix is deployed. Confusion can result, and the cost of that confusion must be a factor in making the decision to deploy a short-term fix as opposed to addressing the root causes. Short-term fixes that involve modifying existing assets in irreversible ways, or acquiring new assets, can have even more serious consequences.
- The risk of brand damage
- Some short-term fixes can have consequences for entire brands. Consider the brand of an aging interior suburb of a large city. The suburb, a middle-class bedroom community, has been running deficits for decades, driven by the increasing gap between growing operating expenses and more-slowly-growing tax revenue. Expenses have been growing faster than revenue for two reasons. First, there is slow growth in the income tax revenue due to stagnation of middle-class income. Second, there is slow growth in property taxes due to the aging of the suburb's housing stock. Proposals to raise property taxes are short-term fixes with long-term negative consequences for the town's brand. If the town becomes known for high property taxes, the valuations of its homes could fall, which could exert downward pressure on property tax revenues. Investors might then be attracted to the town's housing stock, which could increase the number of absentee landlords, and consequently, the fraction of homes occupied by renters, which could further depress average household income and therefore the suburb's income tax revenue. These effects could exacerbate the town's budgetary difficulty, possibly for the long-term future.
- For an organization already captured by short-term fix strategies, brand damage risk is especially difficult to address, because it requires a long-term perspective. [Ries 2009]
These are just a few of the risks associated with short-term fixes to long-term problems. I've intentionally emphasized nontechnical risks because so many discussions of short-term fixes tend toward the technical. Combine these risks with the more widely recognized technical risks for a more complete view of the dangers of short-term fixes. Top Next Issue
Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I
- Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures
can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing
costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
- Start Anywhere
- Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem
is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect
of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore.
- Self-Imposed Constraints
- When we solve problems, the problem definition and associated constraints determine the possible solutions.
Sometimes, though, solving the problem is unnecessarily difficult because we accepted self-imposed constraints
as real. How can we avoid that?
- Disproof of Concept
- Proof-of-concept studies of system designs usually try to devise solution options and discover the system's
operating constraints. But limitations can become clear too late. A different approach — disproof
of concept — can be a useful alternative.
See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- 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, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info