Sunday, June 27, 2021

Problem Solving: Avoiding solution that creates another problem

Long back in 2007, Mumbai Municipal Corporation had a problem with mice. Mice were dangerous and vulnerable to spread the Leptospirosis and plague that time. The solution proposed by the administration for exterminating the mice was to pay people Rs. 5 for every dead mouse they delivered. So the municipal corporation declared to pay Rs. 5 for every dead mouse. People had to take dead mice to the ward office of the municipal corporation and get the cash from there.  It worked until the people began breeding the mice in order to make more money.

"By solving one problem, we generate another one and sometimes create an even worse one. I have encountered similar examples where the people generated another bigger problem to solve one.

To pay the credit card bill, withdrawing the cash from another credit card is another example. The person has to face recovery agents and he used to hesitate to come into the office when recovery agents started visiting the workplace.   

To take a loan to invest in shares assuming that the returns on the share will make you richer. Few borrow the money to invest in Ponzi schemes like selling magnetic mattresses or buying the plot which nobody knows where it is and losing all money.

Problem solving without considering the future consequences is the common flaw in decision making. Every action has consequences, intended and unintended. No matter how carefully we plan, we can't anticipate everything.

To solve the traffic problem, most of the metro cities constructed overbridges. In Pune we have around 66 road bridges including bridges on the river. Our political representatives and engineers in the municipal corporation found that adding new routes and building bridges to distribute traffic will solve the traffic congestion issue. However, in certain parts of the city before or after the bridge, where roads divert, the new issue of traffic congestion is created which is much bigger that earlier one.

Most of the time, it depends upon what we want to achieve in the short term. In business, the top line or the bottom line is the dilemma. CEOs always say that both are important, and they want profitable growth. But depending upon the product mix, they have to decide some strategy. When your product becomes a commodity, your pricing strategy plays an important role. In that case you may improve the revenue impacting your profitability, but again to what extent you can afford it. We have similar issues in different areas of the business.

Few years back, some consultants and HR professionals came up with the idea of fun at the workplace to create an engaging workplace. Every service and technology company was doing some engagement cum fun activities on the shop floor. It created a feel good factor but could not solve the attrition and engagement issue.  Companies ignored the important imperatives of employee engagement like fair treatment, respect, empowerment, culture, right compensation and benefits etc. I am not saying that such engagement activities don't have an impact, it has a temporary impact and that may be on engagement score, but the fundamental problem remains as it is. In fact, it created another problem of the entitlement mindset. We assume that rewards and recognition schemes will increase the motivation, sales incentive plans will increase the sales and so on. Short term basis, it gives results but after a few months, or years it doesn’t work. Another consequence is employees expect gratification in everything you expect from them and it has an impact on the culture.

The problem is good intentions don't eliminate the bad consequences.. Outcomes don't follow from intentions and intentions by definition apply only to intended consequences.

So, what is the solution to such thinking? One way to reduce unintended consequences is to stop focusing on isolated factors and instead consider how our actions affect the whole system. Taking a holistic and helicopter view will help to eliminate some negative consequences in the long term.

You can use some tools while solving the problem or making any decision which will help you avoid some negative consequences.

Ask questions? What sort of problem do you want to solve? What are those positive or negative consequences? Ask somebody to play the role of “devil’s advocate” to challenge you. 

Design thinking: Understand what others expect, their perception and design the solution. Then test with the pilot and take the feedback. Redesign if required.  

Use Six Thinking Hats: Read Six Thinking Hats

Please click on below links to read articles for more methods and tools to avoid future negative consequences.

Weighted criteria assessment in decision making

Decision making process during VUCA

Do you consider the intuition while making decision?

"However, sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the decision right. It depends on what benefits you see." 

(Opinions are purely personal & does not represent my organizations, current or past) 

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RKM said...

Great post. Indeed solving problems have created more problems than ever. Having an holistic long term approach is essential. Looking forward to more on this subject.

Ankita said...

Quick unevaluated design decisions can have a big impact. A lesson for designera- nice writeup

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