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VOL. 37 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 22, 2013

The problem with problem solving

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Years ago I stumbled across an interesting book titled “The Logic of Failure” by Dietrich Dörner. The main premise of the book is that if you are not careful, the side effects of some solutions will make things worse.

In other words, solving old problems can easily create new problems. This most often occurs because of interdependency. The various elements of your problem are somehow connected and strongly influence each other.

According to the author, “It is far from clear whether good intentions plus stupidity, or evil intentions plus intelligence, have wrought more harm to the world.”

To illustrate this point, researchers created a fictional country and a computer game to simulate the long-term effects of various decisions related to the ongoing welfare of the country.

Game participants assumed the role of leader and used their power to exert enormous influence over the economic and social fate of the country. For example, they could impose hunting regulations, improve fertilization of fields, install irrigation systems, build dams, improve health care and make other important decisions unilaterally.

The results of the problem solving efforts were not always positive. Improving the food supply and medical care resulted in increased births and, as expected, life expectancy significantly improved. Unfortunately the increase in food supply was linear and the increase in population was geometric.

In the eighty-eighth month of the computer simulation, a catastrophic and irreversible famine occurred. In another example, building dams in some areas created droughts in other areas. No one considered that such well-meaning, noble efforts could create such devastating future problems.

The book goes on and on giving many examples of how some well-meaning solutions create new problems and complications.

The workplace lesson in all of this seems to be “look for connections” when solving problems in your business. In almost every example in the book, the immediate impact of a decision was positive.

Therefore, decision makers were lulled into a false sense of certainty and almost always continued doing more of something they should not have been doing in the first place.

If the group you are managing is like a bowling team, you do not have to be too concerned with interdependency. Everyone can just bowl their best game and at the end you add the individual scores and compare the total to your opponent’s score. However, if you are managing a department or division of a business, you’re better off thinking of things as an orchestra where understanding interdependency is critical.

Thinking about how everything works together matters most when attempting to solve complex problems. But that is not the way people usually think.

For example, if you have a problem related to inadequate revenues, marketers might see it as a marketing problem, trainers see it as a training problem, sales people see it as a sales commission problem and so forth and so on.

Bottom line – when faced with a complex problem, explore the possible side effects of any quick and seemingly simple solutions.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.

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