How to make things worse

How to make things worse (March 13, 2003)

The View From Taft, Business World

I think that most people would agree that our country is in a mess. Everyone has a pet theory of what needs to be done to make things better: change the president, change the form of government, change the culture, tell the US to mind its own business, make the Philippines a US state, reform economic policies, etc.

While I’m tempted to add my own recommendations to the list of remedies, I’m reminded of something Einstein said about solving problems: “A problem cannot be solved at the level of thinking at which it was created”. What Einstein suggests is that complex problems are often created by the way the problem-solvers themselves think. In other words, in trying to improve the situation in our country or in any complex situation, for that matter, we can be our own worst enemies. We need to learn to think in a different way. Systems thinking is one such way.

However, since we read about prescriptions on how to make things better everyday, we tend to tune out more of the same. So let’s take a different tack and talk about what systems thinking suggests we do if we want to make things, not better but, really worse.

One: Blame others for the problem

We tend to blame. Not only does it seem to solve the problem by pointing to the “cause”, it also gives us the psychological assurance that we are not part of the problem – after all, we are pointing out the culprit. But blaming is self-defeating because in complex situations there is never only one “cause” of a problem. More to the point, everyone shares a responsibility for the problem. As the wise elderly like to point out: Each time you point a finger at anyone, three fingers point at yourself.

Whether we talk about the Payatas garbage dump collapse or the EDSA traffic snarl, after the initial round of finger-pointing, we are hit with the sobering realization that we are all part of the problem – by not controlling or segregating our solid waste and not following traffic rules, respectively.

Blaming feels good but it only worsens the problems because people begin to cover-up facts to defend themselves. This buries the real causes even deeper. Worse, we convince ourselves of our innocence in the matter and forever miss the opportunity to learn together.

Alternative: Let’s discuss collaborative solutions and do our share of the solutions. To paraphrase Gandhi, let us be the change we want to see in the world.

Two: Focus on piecemeal solutions

Prioritize economic development while ignoring social development. Work hard in the office but don’t do anything about the problems at home. What do these approaches have in common? They all assume that we can solve our problems piecemeal. We can’t because, as mentioned above, there are usually many “causes” of any complex problem.

Are we developing as a people when we see newer models of vehicles on the roads? Not if the drivers drive like brutes – cutting into other drivers’ lanes or resorting to counterflow at will because these newer cars have better control and acceleration. Giving someone a better car certainly does not make him a better person, and measuring development mainly through what people have rather than what they have become is an exercise in illusion. We would all be better off being a “backward”, but civil, people going around in karetelas.

For the office worker, he throws himself at his job everyday, convinced that by doing this he is being a good father and provider. And yet he does not make time to talk to his daughter about a missed homework or to his son about dealing with the bullies in school. And the better he gets at his job, the more he pours into it and the more he avoids attending to the home. He has become so good at working that he has become completely incompetent as a home builder. And yet he was working so hard so that he could be a “good” father.

The real danger with piecemeal solutions is that they become worse than the original problem we were trying to solve. Our “solution” begins to feed the problem when what we need is to starve it.

Alternative: Cooperatively implement solutions in related sets targetting all the core causes of the problem at the same time.

Three: Hurry up and overreact

I dread cold morning showers so it’s a joy when I can use a heater. I go to “medium hot” but I don’t get the heat fast enough. So I go to a “high heat” setting right away. After enduring the freezing cold for a while longer, I get my heat – in a scalding torrent. So I rush to go to “low heat” and, after waiting awhile, enjoy the nice warm water. But not for long, as the water becomes ice-cold again. In frustration, I jerk the knob back to “high heat” and …. Well, I’m sure you get the point. I would have done much better by going to “medium heat” and stepping back patiently while I slowly got my warm water. Even with a simple thing as a shower, I achieve nothing and make things worse by demanding quick results and overreacting when I don’t get them.

And yet we demand just this from people, from complex organizations and from our national leaders. Solutions in the real world take time to achieve their target results. This is usually because of unexpected and normal delays in communication within an organization. It takes time for people to reach understanding and agreement on a plan of action. It takes time to implement a plan. And, most importantly, it takes time to get affected parties to cooperate.

I always shudder when I hear an influential news reporter grill a public leader about the seeming lack of results in an ongoing public campaign. After all, as the logic goes (the fallacy, as we have seen), “Kung walang nangyayari, walang ginagawa.” And after enough badgering, I groan as the public leader promises a deadline. Nicely done, Ms. Reporter. We are now guaranteed a band-aid solution. Corners will be cut. Problems will be swept under the rug. But it will be enough to avoid the attention of the quick-fix hungry media for awhile. And then the problem will show itself again, in an even worse form. (I privately remember my own difficulty getting my two sons to follow my own simple “homework before PlayStation” campaign at home. Would I survive this reporter’s grilling? Parenting is slow patient work. The reporter would find me completely incompetent. She would probably tell my children to replace me.)

Alternative: Develop a shared vision of the desired future and implement the required solutions by patiently and supportively working together.

So is it a wonder that we are in a mess? Not if we recognize how often we blame without helping and focus on piece-meal quick fixes – everyday. We all mean well but we often do the very things which make our situations worse. If we can’t make the situation better, can we all just agree not to make things worse?