Are you guilty of taking a “ready, fire, aim” approach to the problems you face? It’s not uncommon, especially when you experience strong pressure to find solutions quickly. Being solution-oriented is a good thing but that’s often equated with taking action without really understanding the nature of the problem.
The thing is—and you’ve probably experienced this—when we jump to solutions too quickly, we might make the problem go away in the short run. Unfortunately, it often comes back again, along with a whole host of unintended consequences that make matters even worse.
Here’s a humorous example about how easy it is to inadvertently create bad habits in our pets through our “quick fix” solutions:
My husband and I started the practice of giving our cat treats upon Jim's arrival home from work. We’d sit in the kitchen and talk, maybe have a snack. We wanted the cat to feel included in our family time.
Quickly, she learned to associate Jim’s arrival with treats. She developed the habit of standing in the kitchen and yowling in anticipation as soon as she heard his car in the driveway (no matter what time of day it was). The noise was so piercing that we continued to give her treats to keep her quiet, even though we realized it was a quick fix.
What we didn’t realize was that there was an unintended consequence: Eventually, the cat stopped eating her real food and would only eat treats. That led to further unintended consequences that necessitated becoming very strict about what we fed her. Months later, however, she still rushes into the kitchen meowing in anticipation of treats when she hears his car.
This is a simple example of how quick fixes can produce unintended consequences. Unfortunately, in larger and more complex systems, the ramifications can be much more severe. As leaders, it’s critical that we train ourselves to behave differently, even when we feel pressure to take quick action.
A recent client was determined to find a different way of responding to his problems. In spite of the pressure to continue responding in the old ways, he and his team discovered some new ways of minimizing the likelihood of unintended consequences, and increasing the chances of getting results that lasted. While it wasn’t easy to do in their company culture, they started seeing results that justified their commitment.
Here’s what they learned:
- The very first thing they needed to do was accept that quick fixes, no matter how tempting, rarely make a problem go away forever. This is especially true with problems that have been around for a while, and/or have been resistant to solutions. Sure, you can kick the can down the road, or shift the responsibility to another division. But if you’re truly interested in results that last, you’ll need to shift your mindset about how you go about solving a problem. The rest of the team’s learning flows from that shift.
- Train yourself and your team to slow down just enough to really understand what’s causing the problem in the first place before looking for a solution.
- Talk to more people, especially those closest to the problem, to get their perspective on how things are working now. Different viewpoints produce a more complete picture of what’s going on.
- Adopt a longer time horizon than you typically do to see if you can envision unintended consequences. If my husband and I had asked the question, “Six months from now, what difference will it make that we’re giving the cat treats when she yowls?” we might have made a different choice at that point.
- Once you’ve adopted a longer time horizon, brainstorm possible unintended consequences for every solution you are proposing.
- Once you decide on a solution, think about how you might minimize the impact of potential unintended consequences.
Consider a problem you have that needs a solution. What would be a quick fix? Once you applied that quick fix, how likely is it that the problem would return? What might be possible unintended consequences of applying the quick fix? What might be a longer term solution? You can use this template to help you think this through.
In spite of awareness of this dynamic, it’s still easy to get caught in “quick fix” thinking. Check out this post that describes how I failed to resist the temptation to apply a quick fix and what I learned from it.
How about you? What examples do you have to share? The more we can be aware of this dynamic, the less likely we are to fall prey to it.