Remove Causes to Solve Problems

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PM Articles by Project Times. 

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ―  Albert Einstein

Performance problems are found wherever projects exist. There are two ways to resolve a performance problem: address its causes and address its symptoms. Effective problem-solving uses both approaches. Remove or remediate the symptoms while doing the work to address the causes.

Einstein’s advice is to think about a problem before jumping into to solve it. The solutions will be obvious as the problem is analyzed. This advice works well if you adapt the amount of time you spend thinking to the needs of the situation.

If the problem requires immediate attention, you still do better to think about it before deciding what to do and doing it. Then you can treat the symptoms with a temporary solution while you figure out what to do longer term to address the causes and conditions that gave rise to the problem.

Of course, there is the exception to every rule. If a lion is attacking you, don’t think for too long or you’ll get eaten. Fortunately, in projects we rarely encounter immediate threats. If we frequently react rather than respond thoughtfully, that’s a problem.

Everything is Caused by Something

Problem solving is on a firm foundation if you accept the systems and process thinking principle that everything is caused by something under existing conditions.

If everything results from causes and conditions, then resolve the causes and change the conditions, and the problem’s symptoms are resolved.

The symptoms are what tell us that a problem exists. For example, unhealthy conflict is a symptom, it can be addressed by separating the conflicting parties, so they don’t get into arguments. That solution removes the symptom without addressing its causes.

Symptoms are easier to remove, but the solution is temporary. On a personal level, treating the causes of anxiety or depression by taking drugs has side effects and fails to address the cause so that when the drugs wear off one either must take more or be anxious or depressed. The symptoms, or others that can be worse, return as the impact of the causes take effect.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. In our example, separating conflicting parties stops the conflicts. But if skillfully exploring differences would add value in planning, design, or making other decisions, removing the symptoms not only makes decision making less effective but it perpetuates the problem of unhealthy conflict management.

Causes are more difficult to remove than symptoms. They take much more time, sometimes years, and patient effort to change systemic factors and old habits.  But once the causes are addressed the problem can be permanently resolved. Of course, the solution might generate future problems. So be ready to refine any solution.

Example: Estimating

In projects, problems that effect performance include inaccurate estimating, unnecessary unhealthy conflict, perpetual performance shortfalls, high turnover of the most valuable staff, and poor decision making.

To address them all is beyond the scope of this article, so we will use the problem of inaccurate estimating as a prime example.

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The practice of padding (unjustifiably adding time or costs) to an estimate solves the problem of underestimating a single project’s costs and duration but undermines best practices and leads to distrust in the effectiveness of the estimators. It perpetuates padding.

With or without padding, continuous estimate adjustments throughout the life of a project gives stakeholders a continuously truer sense of cost and duration. Though, again, there may be distrust in the estimating process, particularly if the adjustments are too frequent and the result is far off from the original estimate. There is perpetual uncertainty.

The solution to the problem of chronic inaccurate estimating is found by exploring its causes and doing something about them. For example, causes may be the absence of historical project data that can be used in future estimating, unskilled estimators, fear of giving a realistic estimate that would displease clients or other powerful stakeholders, etc.

Note that, conceptually, the solution is the same for all performance problems – courageously and objectively look to the system (the organizational setting) and the mindset of the stakeholders in it. Be ready to eliminate the causes you find and at the same time apply temporary fixes to minimize the symptoms project by project.

Old Habits are Hard to break: Manage the Process

Solving chronic project management and performance problems through cause removal is a critical part of process and quality management.

Tactics like padding estimates to address inaccurate estimates become habits. Over time they get so ingrained in everyday activity that they become accepted normal behavior and after a while become part of the organization’s character..

You know that from personal experience that habits are hard to break. Changing or removing habits requires that first you recognize and acknowledge them. Then you can identify the ones that get in the way of improved performance, decide what (if anything) to do about them and do it.

Knowing that every outcome is caused by a process, a chain of causes and effects under conditions, processes like estimating, conflict, and quality management can be analyzed to enable assessment and the discovery of the causes of current or potential problem causes. Once causes are discovered you can decide what to do. You can live with things as they are, keep applying band-aid symptom removal solutions, or change the process to address the causes. If you choose to address the causes, you may find the need for anything from minor tweaks to cultural transformation. Bring cost, benefits, and risk assessment into play to decide what to do and when to do it.

The bottom line is to recognize that problems are natural parts of life. And the best way to work through them is to:

  • Step back, accept, describe, and think about the problem,
  • Weave a solution from options to let the problem persist, apply symptom removal, and cause removal solutions to address immediate symptoms and long-term effects,
  • Assess and refine, as needed.

Stepping back and accepting is often the most difficult part of solving performance problems. It takes objectivity and courage, remembering that ignoring problems will not make them go away and that limiting solutions to symptom removal will perpetuate the problem.

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