What kind of solution?

based on the original article
"The Empowering of Obviations"
Copyright  1994 by Brian Fraser

What is your definition of a "solution" to a problem? How effective do you want it to be? Here are some possible definitions and appraisals of effectiveness:

Prevention: This response to a potential problem acts as a deterrent, a removal of the incentives, an attempt to make the problem not happen. It does not remove the hazard itself, and may have some negative side-effects that are usually minor.

Solution: This response to an actual problem attempts to make the problem either not occur, or at least not have adverse results. Those affected by the problem are often "empowered" to mitigate the effects somehow.  Good solutions are regarded as effective, efficient, and essentially free of destructive side-effects.

Accommodation: This response to the problem acknowledges that the problem will occur and attempts to limit the damage, cope with the results, or clean up the mess. It is not regarded as a solution and may have negative side-effects that are significant but not readily apparent.

Participation: This response to the problem makes it worse. It has many negative effects, both direct and indirect. People use it because they mistakenly think it is a solution.

Obviation: This is not a response to a problem because the problem has been avoided or “obviated” altogether. So there is no need for prevention, solution, or accommodation. Nor is there any risk of participation. The problem simply does not or cannot happen, and there is no mess to clean up either.

Denial/Dismissal: This response claims that there is "no problem". This one is characterized by phrases like the following:

  • “Nobody would take those accusations seriously. Those people are just a bunch of troublemakers.”

  • “That does not apply to us”

  • “We are just an average company. What do you expect?”

  • “You can’t control people.”

  • “It is not our problem.”

This response produces an attitude of futility and statements like “who cares” and “whatever”. Those few people who have a good solution to the problem won't bother speaking up. They will often claim that the company has "no management".

To illustrate how these definitions work, just apply them to a serious problem in your local community. I live in a large city which has had numerous tragic incidences of child drownings in private swimming pools. The above solutions might go something like this:

Prevention: Put childproof fences around the pool and cover the pool when not in use.

Solution: Put childproof fences around the pool and teach all children “drown-proofing” at the earliest possible age. Assign an adult to watch kids at all times when they are around water.  Require pools to have a wave alarm when not in use.

Accommodation:  Require neighborhoods with pools to have good ambulance and rescue service, and all parents to be trained in CPR, and regularly practice “pool rescue.”

Participation: Tell kids that getting in deep over their heads is fun. Tell them that diving in the shallow end can be made “safe” with crash helmets. Tell them that the fence is just an unnecessary annoyance created by an obnoxious law.

Obviation: People have no private swimming pools. They either go to public pools or engage in some other form of recreation such as bicycling.

Denial/Dismissal: “Hey, stuff happens. It’s like the weather . . . It is just 'there'.”   “There are so many drownings you just cannot do much about it.”

There are some key pitfalls to avoid when trying to solve a problem:

1. The pitfall of trying to solve the wrong problem.  Remember those politicians who want to “get tough on crime”. But they must have some crime to get tough on in the first place. Maybe they should look at that problem first. If you have a long "laundry list" of problems, ask yourself if they have a common origin.

Another side to this, is the fallacy of trying to fix the problem by searching for the wrong cause. Example, a computer controlled automated manufacturing machine runs fine for about a week and then begins to gradually malfunction. Rebooting the computer causes it to function normally again. You might think software engineers then examine the computer code for some incorrect statements. But often what they find in cases like this are statements that have been left out, rather than incorrect ones that have been included: A subroutine ultimately malfunctioned because it failed to initialize a variable when a statement ( like x=0;) was left out. Or memory "leaks" because a statement allocated the memory, but the corresponding statement to give it back to the operating system was not written. If you are a software engineer, you get used to this kind of thinking. You comb through millions of lines of code, not only looking for printed statements that are wrong, but also  looking for "unprinted statements"  that have been left out. "Finding" something that is not there requires a type of thinking different from finding what is there and is malfunctioning.

2. The pitfall of becoming entangled with the problem.  A sales manager discovers he had lost some sales because some customers were treated rudely. He tells his sales force “Don’t treat customers rudely or you will be punished.” But later he finds that his sales force now tries to avoid customers altogether, and sales fall off sharply. He got what he didn’t want because he not only focused on the problem, he also implemented a negative solution. That left his sales force guessing “Well, what does he want? What should we do?” The manager should have treated his employees they way he wants them to treat customers.  (See The Customer Comes Second , Hal Rosenbluth and Diane Mcferrin Peters, 2002)

Another example: A school decides to teach “safe sex” and  tells students they can be “responsible persons” if they use a condom while having sex. But teen pregnancies go up instead of down. What went wrong?

3. The pitfall of adopting a “tool-oriented” method of problem solving. Decide what really needs to be done about the problem, regardless of whether you can do it or not. Then work backwards from there until you find something that can be done. This process may be far outside your comfort zone and you may have a tendency to avoid this hard work.

People who have only a hammer, may just go looking for nails, not because hammering down nails is necessary, but because “it is all we can do.” Likewise, if all they have is a bombsight, everything will look like a target, regardless of whether it is or not. Teachers may think they can teach their way out of a problem. But this might not be the case. A better approach might be to "sell expectations" by developing rapport and trust.

Many social problems result from adopting ineffective values. See the article Four Values for America! for more insights on this.


"Obviation: fixing the problem without touching it", http://10000solutions.org/solution/use-obviation-problem-solving-method
"Four Effective Values for Corporate America", http://10000solutions.org/solution/four-effective-values-corporate-america


Obviation implies using systems that are, at a minimum, robust and error resistant. But another characteristic is also important, namely, antifragility:

"Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better." (Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifragile:_Things_That_Gain_from_Disorder )

Example: Bone gains strength when repeatedly stressed. Similarly, human organizations need some mechanism to steer them back on track when something goes wrong, and to obviate further re-occurrences.

Corporate America still operates on a mostly hierarchical system. Big kings with big kingdoms rule over lesser kings with lesser kingdoms. How well you do, and how well your department does, depends on your king, and all the kings above it. If something is not right, you typically try to solve the problem locally, with the help of your king. Failing that, you can appeal to a higher king. You can thus tap into more authority, but usually that authority has less knowledge, and less interest, in the problem at hand, and, might even be part of the problem. There are also risks of "going over your king's head".  Typically, this system produces passable, but certainly not excellent, results. Problems have to be passed up the chain of command for a ruling (rather than being solved at the lowest possible level),  and there is nothing that automatically steers the department back on course when new problems arise or new kings come on board.

A particular corporation can exist for several decades, whereas individuals within that corporation tend to come and go over the years. An obviational structure needs to reside in something relatively permanent. A culture supporting a set of well-chosen values is a good repository. Corporations know what their goals are, such as customer satisfaction, and profits. But they often fumble when trying to figure out how to reach those goals. Corporations get their work done through people (who are often touted as the company's "most important asset" usually in a one paragraph statement in the company's annual report). These people (employees) are not the customers that corporate management tends to focus on, but they have needs too. The following four values are important to employees at any level:

1. Active respect and support for the individual.

2. Active support for finding the right thing to do and for doing it right the first time.

3. Active love of customer.

4. Continual, incremental improvement.

These are simple, natural, easily remembered values (the list MUST be short!) They are discussed in more depth in the article:  FourValues for America . Note that the emphasis is first on active support from management, not just results from employees. Usually an endorsement from the CEO and a couple of years of careful development are needed for a value system to become truly effective (and powerful!). Also required are one or two people ("gurus", "zealots", "believers") who have an intuitive feel for how such a value system should operate, as there will be plenty of questions along the way which will cause people to think.

Next time you have a problem in your department, just check the list and see if the problem could have been obviated if everyone had practiced these values. Most problems in Corporate America boil down to these four values.    If your company, and your manager, can manage just these four things well , everything else will fall into place.