41 - The perils of problem solving



There’s an idea that is 10X as effective but only acknowledged a tenth of the time as it should be. I’m talking about avoiding problems–a far better approach to decision-making than solving problems.

Problem solving is fire-fighting. You come to work, life firefighters do, and rescue business objectives, like those trapped, from burning to rubble. It seems heroic; it never goes unnoticed; and it’s unmatched in urgency.

The problem is, you could be sucked into fire-fighting. Business seems to have a knack of putting itself in danger all the time and it’s your job to rescue it each time. Before you know it, you’re on a fire-fighting treadmill. The book Decisive tells a revealing tale.

In the 1990s, the non-profit Interplast did cleft-lip surgeries on children in developing nations using volunteer surgeons from developed nations. They allowed surgeons to bring family on trips AND young residents to accompany surgeons as apprentices.

This is what split the Interplast board in two.

While these practices spurred high-profile volunteer surgeons enough to give up their precious downtime to help poor children, it did not help set up local infrastructure or train local surgeons to perform surgeries at scale. The sacrifice of the visiting surgeons was deemed heroic. Interplast had to keep them happy as capable volunteering surgeons were hard to find. But the model itself didn’t scale. There seemed to be an unending demand for cleft-lip fixes.

Several boardroom debates later, they realized: the surgeons were not Interplast’s customers; the kids needing face surgeries were. The surgeons were a symptom; the root problem was that developing countries lacked the means to wipe out cleft lips.

Tackling symptoms more than the disease is a fairly common problem across organizations. Making a symptomatic difference is valued more than making a systemic change. Shreyas Doshi calls it the Problem Prevention Paradox: Any complex organization will over time tend to incentivize problem creation more than problem prevention.

There are several ways to work around the problem-solving epidemic. The book Decisive advises ‘enshrining core priorities’ to resolve dilemmas in organizations. Shreyas suggests rewarding problem prevention and doing pre-mortems to anticipate and tackle problems ahead of time.

Whatever the tactic, it is vital to create a culture where problem solving does not come at the cost of problem prevention. Having to wade into raging flames like others have to step under a shower is not a badge of honor. It means something somewhere has gone wrong.

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