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Weekly 3: Solutions create new problems


Idea Journal Weekly 3

February 9 · Issue #125 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Plan for problems. See technology objectively. Anticipate future effects. (~5 min read)

#1. “The Chief Cause of Problems is Solutions”
Lean management expert Brent Wahba writes on his blog that many of the problems we face at work “are often the result of somebody’s well-meaning improvement attempts in the past.”
Wahba offers a few examples: 
Original problem: “Sales are too low!”
  • Solution: Streamline the sales process to close more deals
  • New problem: The quality and responsiveness of customer service suffers, and customers are less satisfied
Original problem: “We aren’t learning fast enough!”
  • Solution: “Fail fast, fail cheap”
  • New problem: A new culture forms based on trying anything, instead of conducting thoughtful experiments and effectively using existing knowledge
Original problem: “We need to get lean!”
  • Solution: Copy another company’s methods or hire a lean management consultant 
  • New problem: There’s a culture mismatch and resistance to the new methods
How can we avoid situations like this?
Wahba acknowledges that in complex systems like organizations, you can’t guarantee that your solution won’t create new problems. 
But you can increase your odds of preventing new problems by deliberately thinking ahead to identify possible unintended consequences, and creating robust countermeasures.
Wahba recommends the following three approaches:
1. Clearly define the problem that needs to be solved
As Wahba puts it, solving “wrong or unimportant problems is a sure-fire way to create future waste.”
It pays to spend time upfront discussing and answering questions such as: What problem are we solving? Why is this a high-priority problem? What is the specific, measurable gap that we are trying to close?
2. Test, improve, repeat 
A well-designed experiment can help uncover both the good and the bad aspects of a given solution before committing an entire organization’s resources.
This more patient approach allows you to improve the solution, and address its unexpected shortcomings before it becomes a new standard.
3. Remember that you’re dealing with people
Wahba notes that changing our minds and behavior is a rewiring process that happens incrementally: “If you expect people to change quickly and dramatically, you’re setting yourself and your team up for another round of unintended consequences.”
#2. Technology can both solve and create problems
Media theorist Neil Postman writes in his book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century that it’s hard to think of a single technology that didn’t generate new problems as a result of solving old problems.
For example, the car solved several important problems for most people, but in doing so, poisoned our air and choked our cities with traffic.
Or television, which solved several problems, but also changed the nature of political discourse. 
Television helped US President Ronald Reagan earn the nickname “the Great Communicator.”
But would the same medium have been as kind to Abraham Lincoln, who, in a photography-only era was often described as “ugly and ungainly”?
For Postman, when considering any new technology, it’s important to ask: What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
He acknowledges that it can be difficult to imagine what new problems will arise as a consequence of some technological solution. For instance, if Gutenberg had foreseen in 1440 that his printing press with movable type would lead to the breakup of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, he probably would have focused on making wine and not books.
Perhaps it didn’t matter as much if people lacked technological vision in the fifteenth century. 
But as Postman notes, “in the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to move into the future with our eyes tightly closed.”
Postman was writing in 1999.
#3. Pay attention to future consequences, good and bad
Author Josh Kaufman writes in his book The Personal MBA that every action has a consequence, and that consequence always has consequences – “even if you don’t know what they are or don’t want them to happen.”
These additional consequences are called “second-order effects.” 
Second-order effects are particularly influential in complex systems, where elements can be interrelated or dependent on one another in multiple ways.
Kaufman illustrates this phenomenon using the example of rent control in New York City.
Rent control after World War II aimed to provide returning veterans with affordable housing, by capping rent prices in certain areas of the city.
But here’s what the city planners didn’t anticipate: every year, the cost of maintaining properties in the city continued to rise. But based on rent control, landlords weren’t allowed to raise rent prices to compensate for these rising costs. 
And by law, rent control couldn’t be removed unless the original leaseholder moved or the building was condemned. 
So the landlords refused to maintain their properties. They saw it as a waste of money: “Financially, it was better to let the building deteriorate around the remaining tenants.”
Over time, rent control led to a decline in the quality of properties, as well as a decrease in supply as more buildings were condemned. These consequences had the effect of increasing housing prices – the opposite of the original intent.
Kaufman’s advice is to approach making changes to a complex system with extreme caution: “what you get may be the opposite of what you expect.”
Quote of the Week
“Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions:
  • What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes?
  • In 10 months?
  • And in 10 years?”
- Author Suzy Welch in her book 10-10-10
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