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 non-issue. 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 non-technical 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
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: I
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts
or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs,
because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our
lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II
- When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning.
Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project.
Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
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