intractable problemSometimes our attempts to solve a problem cause an even bigger problem down the track. Here’s how to recognise these situations, and some ideas on what to do about it.

An article on by Connirae Andreas on the always useful Steve Andreas blog reminds us that ‘coping mechanisms’ that help us ‘get by’ can have a downside if they extend beyond their period of usefulness. She uses the analogy of putting on a splint – it can help a broken bone to mend, but you wouldn’t keep it on after the break has healed.

If you did, it would get in the way, get dirty, maybe stop you using your arm effectively and end up doing more harm than good.

Similarly, our best efforts to solve our problems, whether conscious or unconscious, can end up being problems in themselves. This can either be because they are aimed at treating a symptom while the real problem is deeper or systemic with multiple causes, or because the ‘fix’ is held onto long after the problem has become irrelevant.

For example, someone may have started to smoke as a teenager in order to fit in with their peer group, or to act more grown up. Twenty years later, they have no problem feeling grown up, and their social anxieties have long disappeared, but the smoking habit remains.

Someone else may have felt deeply hurt when their first serious romantic relationship ended badly. In order to protect themselves from feeling that hurt again, they now unconsciously drive away anyone who gets too close – leading to the very feelings of loneliness that they want to avoid.

Do attempted solutions cause problems in a similar way at the level of the organisations and society? I think they do.

As an example, when New Labour won the UK general election in 1997, one of their pledges was to get waiting times down for operations on the National Health Service (NHS). They set targets for waiting time reduction, and for many other aspects of NHS performance, and the waiting times duly came down. However, the resulting target driven culture has been blamed for many failings in areas that were not explicitly targeted, with dirty wards leading to big increases in ‘superbug’ infections like MRSA, and doctors complaining that the requirement to tick boxes distorts decisions that should be based on clinical judgement.

“Targets make organisations stupid. Because they are a simplistic response to a complex issue, they have unintended and unwelcome consequences” – Simon Caulkin in The Observer

At the national or society level, the decision by the US and UK to invade Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to end Saddam Hussein’s ‘support for terrorism’, resulted in a vastly increased presence in the country of organisations identified as terrorist, first Al-Qaeda and now ‘ISIS’.

So what can be done when our best attempt to solve the problem doesn’t work, or causes more problems? At the individual level there are elegant interventions like Connirae and Tamara Andreas’s Core Transformation process. The heart of Core Transformation is to treat the behaviour (or thought pattern, or feeling) resulting in the problem as a purposeful action, and to ask what the purpose of the symptom is (assuming a positive intent). When an answer comes back (from whatever part of the person’s mind they take to be responsible for the problem), we ask again along the lines of ‘and when you have that <whatever purpose they answered>, what will that do for you that’s even more important?’

Repeatedly asking this question tends to get increasingly abstract answers, quickly leading to some value or values that the person can recognise as positive, and beyond that to what is important to the person at their ‘core’ – which can be a profound spiritual experience and usually frees up the person to make better choices, and makes the previous problem irrelevant or at least puts it in perspective (I should add that without the book in front of me I’m paraphrasing the Core Transformation questions and probably not doing them justice).

What if we could apply a similar approach to solving problems in companies? First, we could assume that any employee or indeed management behaviours that are causing problems have a ‘positive intention’ behind them – in other words, they are the best response that people can find in the situation they are in, given their priorities.

So we could ask:

What benefits does this problem behaviour have for the person doing it?
What unintended consequences does it have?
What constraints prevent them from acting in the way that you want them to?

Remember, the ‘problem’ behaviour will seem like the best choice available to the person or people doing it, so we could also ask them directly:

We could also ask the people doing the ‘problem’ behaviour:

What is the purpose of doing this? What will it get you?

When you get an answer, you could go on to ask:

And when you have <whatever their answer was>, what does that get you that’s even more important than that?

Keep asking that question and follow where the answers lead – you will probably get to some purpose or end goal that both you and the person you are asking can recognise as positive quite quickly.

The answers will also tend to become more abstract the further along the chain you go, which frees up the possibility of change because there are many ways of fulfilling an abstract value such as ‘efficiency’ or ‘control’. Going up to a more abstract level allows the possibility of coming down again to some different behaviour that still fulfils the value, perhaps better than before, but which does not have the downsides that made the original behaviour problematic.

Along the way you may find constraints (such as targets, standing instructions or reward systems that turn out to reward the unwanted behaviour) or unexpected consequences (such as factors that are essential to the job being neglected because they aren’t mentioned in explicit targets) that contribute to the problem.

The way you ask these questions is important, and you need to take care that it doesn’t feel like an interrogation. If that happens, people will tend to clam up or offer excuses and justifications, making your job of understanding and solving the problem behaviours much harder. But note that asking about the purpose of an action, which carries the implicit assumption that there is some purpose behind it, is less challenging than asking “Why did you do this?”

I would love to hear examples of how you have managed to change problematic behaviours, either on an individual level or in an organisational setting, either by recognising that the behaviour or habit has outlived its usefulness, or by starting from the assumption that it has some benefits for the person doing it and helping them find other ways to achieve those benefits which do not cause a problem. Leave a comment below!

When Attempted Solutions Cause More Problems – And What To Do About It

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