Posted in Brownstone
September 5, 2022

The Chief Cause of Problems Is Bad Solutions

When H. William Dettmer started working with Dr. Eli Goldratt’s Thinking Process framework for solving profound problems in the 1990s, he soon realised how very often people focused on the wrong problems, and then spent their time and effort on figuring out root causes behind often trivial issues. 

Dettmer’s solution to this was based on a simple, yet profound insight: A problem is not really a problem unless it prevents us from reaching our goal. The first step in problem-solving should therefore be to define the goal, and in Dettmer’s amended framework not only a goal but also the factors critical to achieve it. This way, focus on what actually mattered would be ensured; the problem solver could rest assured he was not wasting his time on trivialities.

What we perceive as important problems are often things that annoy us, but which really do not matter in the bigger context. I might perceive a cluttered inbox or a broken coffee machine in the office as a major problem, while those are totally unimportant to the long-term success of the company. 

As long as I realise such issues are important only to me personally, no harm is done. But as soon as my focus shifts to the trivial problems and I become obsessed with them, I may be headed for wrong decisions, a situation exemplified by Eric Sevareid’s insight of how “the chief cause of problems is solutions.”

Eli Goldratt’s book, The Goal, is one of the most influential management books of all time and his ideas have had a profound impact, especially in production and project management. Goldratt’s first axiom is that every decision must aim at furthering the company’s overall goal. Self-evident as it may sound, all senior managers know the constant effort it takes to maintain this focus.

What happens if we have no clear goal? In that case any undesired change may come to be perceived as an important problem. The more sudden or unexpected the change, the more likely this is. If there is no goal, we have no way to judge the importance. 

In the summer of 2020 I had a long discussion with a consultant friend in Paris, another of Goldratt’s disciples, on the situation and outlook after the Covid-19 crisis struck. Our first instinct was of course to try and define a goal. We agreed that when it comes to public health the goal should always be to minimise the loss of life-years, or rather quality-adjusted life-years, both now and in the future. 

This was shortly after the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo had claimed that any severity of measures against the coronavirus was worth it, if they saved just one life. Across the world, national leaders constantly repeated the mantra of “following the science,” meaning the whole of society should be managed based on the advice of experts in a narrow field of medical science, focusing on suppressing or even eradicating a single disease. An ethics professor I interviewed in late 2020 said it was morally right to brush aside all concerns of collateral damage because we were “in a pandemic.”

Maximising the number of life-years might well be a proper goal for healthcare. It calls for both short and long-term strategies, including prevention, treatment, even nutritional policies and many other strategies. But when we look at society as a whole, the maximum number of life-years, even when “quality-adjusted,” is hardly a proper overall goal; it focuses on physical existence only, ignoring all the other complex factors which make life worth living.

What then about the goal of “following the science” or of preventing even just one death from a coronavirus at all costs? It should be obvious how absurd it is to view those as true goals when it comes to governing a society. But for some reason, over the past 30 months, those and other similar extremely narrow objectives became the chief goals of public health authorities and governments in almost the whole world.

There is little doubt that the phenomenon of mass formation described by Mattias Desmet has played a role here. I clearly remember how many people had convinced themselves that nothing mattered except to stop the virus in its tracks, to delay infections. And when I say nothing I mean nothing. “The only thing that matters is preventing infections,” someone told me back in 2020. And when I pressed him, asking if he meant the only thing that mattered in the whole wide world was slowing the spread of the virus, if everything else was really of no consequence, education, the economy, poverty, mental health; everything else, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”

But mass formation is not a necessary condition for loss of focus. Recently a hardware salesman told me of a security manager who called him to complain over a plastic cap, the type sometimes placed over the thumb turn on an emergency exit door, which can be broken in case of fire. The client was very upset about having cut his hand during an emergency drill. Therefore he found the device unusable. 

But as the salesman explained, while with hardened, brittle plastic this cannot be prevented, it is of no importance. The goal is to allow people to escape from a fire, and in that case cutting your hand is but a minor inconvenience. The fact the security manager viewed this as a major problem simply showed he had lost sight of the goal. Most likely because his job was just to manage emergency drills; an actual emergency was not really a part of his world.

What those two cases have in common is how, in the absence of a goal, our focus is diverted towards a problem, otherwise insignificant, or at least not the only problem in the world, and eliminating the problem becomes the goal. This is why the key to successful problem-solving is to first agree on a common goal, otherwise we may end up solving the wrong problems.

The security manager immediately realised his error when pointed out to him. But the man who told me nothing mattered but the virus did not. Even today he might still be under the spell. This is the key difference between someone temporarily losing sight of the goal and someone under the spell of mass formation. The former may be reasoned with, the latter not.

The loss of focus we have experienced during the past 30 months rests on two pillars. One is the power of mass formation. But the other one, no less important, is the loss of leadership. In both Sweden and the Faroe Islands the leadership, epidemiologist Anders Tegnell in the case of Sweden, and the government in the case of the Faroe Islands, never succumbed to irrational fear. If they had, it would surely have taken over in both countries. 

The chief reason it didn’t was the stance taken by the leaders who, guided by common sense. never lost sight of the goal of government; ensuring the well-being of society as a whole, or, at the individual level, ensuring man’s possibility to live a full life, as Eli Goldratt once put it. Neither is clear-cut of course, but however fuzzy and imperfect the goal statement may be, once we lose sight of it, we are in grave danger of succumbing to mass formation. It only takes a sudden change or an unforeseen threat, blown out of proportion, unrestrained by the common goal.

The prerequisite for a common goal is common sense. But here I’m not referring to the usual definition of common sense as synonymous with sound judgment, but rather Hannah Arendt’s more profound definition, offered in the final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Even the experience of the materially and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men upon our common sense which regulates and controls all other senses and without each of us would be enclosed in his own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous. Only because we have common sense, that is only because not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth can we trust our immediate sensual experience.”

Thus, sound judgment, which we usually see as synonymous with common sense, in fact rather requires it; to have sound judgment we must sense, or perceive, the world around us in the same, or in a similar enough way; in a common way. Common sense is a necessary condition for sound judgment; without the former we cannot have the latter. Therefore, only if we have common sense; a shared sensual experience, can we then have sound judgment.

But sound judgment, and thus a shared goal, rests on shared values also. Over the last few decades, as our societies have in certain ways become more open and tolerant, the shared values of religion and the belief in fundamental human rights, have at the same time disintegrated. We have become free to choose products, beliefs, lifestyle, sexual orientation, but at the same time we have forgotten the ideal of freedom; freedom is sacred no more. 

As Thomas Harrington recently pointed out, we are not citizens now; we have become consumers only. And to the consumer there are no values, there is only price.

Ultimately, our shared values are based on our shared experience, our shared stories, our shared history. How could one possibly understand Judaism without knowing the Torah? How could one understand Western principles of human rights without knowing Christianity?

But at the same time our common sense is always subject to our shared values also. This way the two cannot be separated, they reinforce each other; this is the basis of culture.

When almost the whole world loses sight of the common goal of human society, and the elimination of a single problem, in the end a rather unimportant one, takes precedence over everything else, thus becoming the goal – a distorted and absurd one, a disastrous and ruinous one for sure – this is an indication of a fundamental loss of common sense. 

A healthy society does not succumb to mass formation. The reason this can happen is that we have no common goal any more, no common sense. To get out of this situation and to avoid it in the future, we must find our goal again, we must reestablish our focus, we must regain our common sense.