To Really Solve Problems, Make Them Disappear

If you’ve ever heard of or read the Upstream Parable, you already know where I’m going with this. But for those who haven’t, let me have a go at a slightly different version of it.

You and your friend are camping by the side of a river. Your conversation is all of a sudden interrupted by a cry for help coming from the nearby river. You and your friend run to check and see that a person is about to drown. 

With no time to think, both of you jump into the river and carry the person safely to land. Walking back to your spot, you hear another cry. Both of you turn back and run towards the river and see another person nearly drowning and quickly bring him to safety.

This happens yet another time but this time around, you find yourself the only one pulling the drowning man to the land. You look around and see your friend walking upstream so you shout at her to ask where she’s going. She shouts back and says “I’m going to check and find out who’s pushing these poor people into the river!”

Whenever problems arise, which person are you? The one who’s quick to action and saves the people from drowning or are you the one who tries to go and see what or who is causing this to happen in the first place?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this for quite some time now. As humans, we are wired to notice and pay our attention to what’s tangible, understandably so. One of the first few things I learned when I came to Singapore was to always find stalls in hawker centers with a number of people lining up. The locals said it’s one way of determining which ones serve good food. But what if the adjacent stall actually serves better food but has a better system in place preventing lines from building up?

When people start to celebrate victories over problems solved, my default response is skepticism. Not because I’m a grinch who embraces misery but in most of my experience, no one pauses and takes the time to think whether the problem should’ve existed in the first place. Was it caused by an errant decision by an individual? Could it have been prevented by better planning or design of the system in place? These are the things that keep me up at night.

In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport says, “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”

Think about it. Our productivity is usually measured by how we react to existing problems. In contrast, how do we measure someone’s effort or contribution when he or she does it from a proactive standpoint—before problems even arise? When solving visible problems, it’s easy to signal value creation to others—everyone thinks you’re indispensable because you’re so busy solving problems. However, upstream efforts are much harder to measure. Rewarding people for something that didn’t happen is very difficult.

And this can quickly become a problem in organizations that are quick to reward just the tangibles—the visible work. Instead of carefully thinking through a solution, usually by identifying root causes, everyone falls in love with firefighting and the guise of busyness. The bestselling author Ryan Holiday asks, “What are the chances that the busiest person you know is actually the most productive?” He continues, “We tend to associate busyness with goodness and believe that spending many hours at work should be rewarded.”

So, how does one solve this? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. Most organizations take cue from journalists and tend to side with selective reporting and negativity bias. In Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, the author and statistician Hans Rosling says, “Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people.” It’s natural to look for problems and reward people for fixing them instead of designing systems to prevent or at least catch them at the earliest stage possible.

My guess is by having a clear mission and incentivizing correctly, organizations are more likely to get everyone into a proactive mindset. It should be first nature to everyone to look for root causes. To borrow an idea from Toyota, whenever a problem is identified, ask why five times—where each answer forms the basis of the next question—to figure out the root cause of it.

Resist working on the symptoms i.e. fire fighting; instead work on the actual thing that’s causing the problem. Once the fundamental causes are found, redesign the system to avoid the same problems from happening again. Think of how it’s almost impossible for someone to forget their card when withdrawing money from an ATM. The card must be removed first before the cash is dispensed.

Also, it would be a good practice to review things that are going well and, like a good devil’s advocate, conjure up possible scenarios if those things weren’t. So instead of diagnosing a problem, do the reverse. Identify things that are going well and figure out why they’re going well. Were systems designed and put in place earlier? Which problems is it preventing from happening?

Hopefully, by applying these concepts, your organization becomes more resilient and starts treating identifying and solving of root causes as a core value—celebrating problems that didn’t happen because the proper systems were put in place. Just imagine how many people you can save from drowning not because you and your friend were able to grab them and brought safely to land but because you’ve fixed the actual problem which is getting the guy pushing the poor people into the river apprehended.


I write these essays to express myself and learn more about certain topics that pique my interest. If you have any thoughts or ideas related to the entry above, please leave a comment below.

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