The three biggest mistakes made when attempting to solve a problem

I can easily identify with the executive in Frank Cotham’s cartoon that appeared in an issue of The New Yorker years ago.

Problems really do seem to multiply like rabbits on steroids.

However, experts on decision-making agree that there are three mistakes that seem to make  difficult situations even worse…and all can be avoided.

1. Solving a symptom rather than a cause. Wet highways do not cause rain. More often than not, problem-solving initiatives focus on effects rather than on their root causes. Mowing weeds, for example, or feeding hay to a dead horse to get it going again. The best technique for “drilling down” to a root cause is fishboning, devised by  Kaoru Ishikawa. A less complicated technique is calledFive Whys.”

2. Concentrating on the wrong cause. As Steven Johnson explains in The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, it was widely assumed after a plague developed (in 1854) that the deadly virus was transported through the air. Only months and thousands of lives later did the authorities learn that the virus had been transported in water drawn from one well. They shut off the supply and the epidemic ended.

3. Assuming that if you wait long enough, it will solve itself or simply “go away.” This non-decision (actually a “do nothing” decision) usually enables an insignificant problem to become very serious, perhaps even deadly and eventually fatal. Infections resulting from “minor” cuts, for example, especially if staphylococcus aureus is involved.

My own lamentably extensive experience with making all three mistakes is that there are no insignificant details when in a crisis situation. Oh sure, there can be “paralysis from analysis.” However, as a general rule, it is prudent to solve a small problem immediately…if it really is a problem.

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