Ann got a severe bronchial infection while she and I were living in India. We called a doctor who came to our hotel and assessed her health, he wrote out some prescriptions for several medicines and we were able to pay him and buy all the medicine for less than the copay in the United States ($25). Of the four medicines he recommended, only one was an antibiotic, the others all treated symptoms associated with the infection. The first time Ann took the decongestant she felt really happy for a brief period and then really crappy. The second time it happened again and that was the last time we took the decongestant. The doctor warned the cough syrup might cause tremors, which Ann didn’t experience, but when I took it for my cough later on, I had some odd twitches. Maybe it was because I drink coffee. Only the antibiotic helped Ann fight the infection, the rest were to cover symptoms, some of which caused even worse side effects. We’ve all heard stories of people prescribed medicine, then given more medicine to cover up the side effects of the first medicine and then even more medicine to cover up the complications associated with those. When they go off all the medicine, they suddenly feel a lot better.
It’s easy to see this problem in medicine, but this is how we approach many problems: We solve a problem, but our solution creates some new problems. Instead of going back to our original solution and reworking it, we add something to fix the new problem we just created. This cycle continues and eventually we have something that gets sent to There I Fixed It . Each subsequent loop becomes harder and harder as the complexity of The Solution becomes overwhelming. Like a hydra, each head we cut off spawns two new ones, or maybe just one new one that now breaths fire.
Yet it’s hard for us to see that our new fixes make the problem worse, not better. Because we built the first solution, we’re numb to it’s complexity and so we don’t appreciate the full complexity that the new solution adds. Instead of continuing on this path of more, we should figure out how to go back to the beginning and start again with something simple. We wrestle to give up what we’ve built because it’s what we know, it’s what we understand; that even though we have a hammer, maybe this isn’t a nail and we’re going to have to pound this screw harder if we’re going to get it to go in. Moreover, we filter the possible solutions to problems based on the things we already know, rather than seeking out new ways of seeing the problem as a way to fix things. It’s not easy to stop, but as we go back to the beginning, we often find a simpler path that works better for everyone.
If it seems like the problems keep mounting and not dissipating as we add “solutions”, maybe it’s time for us to instead look at subtracting instead of adding. Or even go back to the beginning and try to see the problem anew. Don’t be deluded into thinking what we have is all there is.
[Related Post: The RapidChip Fallacy]