When the Solution Is Worse Than the Problem
Almost everyone can think of solutions that proved to be worse than the problems they were intended to solve. In hindsight, the problems triggered by the solution seem evident. But somehow, we often fall short in anticipating what can go wrong, and we fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. Everything is peachy keen until, seemingly out of nowhere, things go haywire. As one manager of a failing project put it: “We encountered some unintended consequences that we hadn’t planned for.” Right!
For example, some years back in a city famous for rush-hour traffic jams, officials devised a way to improve the flow of traffic: They designated the high-speed lane of a fifteen-mile stretch of expressway as an express lane and restricted its use to cars with at least two people, with stiff fines for violators.
What made this solution different from other high-speed lanes is that this express lane was to begin at a point at which two major highways merged to form the expressway. This meant that if you approached the expressway from the high-speed lane of the highway on the left and didn’t have a passenger, you had to quickly merge right before the orange cones that separated the high-speed lane from the other lanes. And if you approached from the highway on the right and wanted to enter the high-speed lane, you had to quickly shift left one or more lanes before the orange cones.
What could possibly go wrong?
To enter or exit the express lane within that cone-free stretch, cars had to slow to a crawl. The result: Traffic backed up for miles—no exaggeration—on the two merging highways. It was a disaster. Local roads became clogged as commuters sought alternative routes. Calling in late became the norm. The tie-ups dominated news programs and talk shows.
Obviously, something had to be done. The solution (to the new problem that was supposed to be the solution to the original problem) was to eliminate the express lane. The orange cones came down. Traffic conditions were restored to the previous rush-hour levels. Commuters, while still unhappy with the traffic congestion, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
As anyone who has ever worked on major projects knows, problem-solving is rarely as straightforward as following a series of strategies or a set of numbered steps. And it’s cavalier to think that even the most brilliant-sounding solution is without the potential for failure. That’s why wise problem-solvers strive to minimize unintended consequences by asking: How might this solution backfire? What haven’t we thought of? What bad assumptions have we made? Even if everything happens exactly as we think it should, what could go wrong?