Working patterns: Why do we constantly create new problems by trying to solve the existing ones? Part 1.

tom and jerryIf you’re reading this blog, it means you’re spending some time on the Internet. It may also mean that while browsing you’ve encountered at least one of the endless variations of the “Doing it wrong” or “You had one job” memes.

If not, these memes make a laugh of exactly what their titles describe –   how the simplest tasks performed by others could go completely and ridiculously wrong. Sweeping the floor raises too much dust that lands on everything else, excessive dieting backfires as health problems, growing industry destroys whole ecosystems and hiding bad news from someone causes a heart attack when the truth is revealed by another source.

Sounds familiar? If not, think about more work-related situations, such as investing in new software that ends up jamming the system or having to overhaul the whole project because of the shortcuts that were initially introduced “to save time”. Why does it happen so often?

Let’s try to think about some possible reasons, such as:

1. Our urgent need to relieve immediate stress

I’m sure there are tasks you’re pretty sure you could do perfectly, right? But can you do it as perfectly when you’re thinking about some emotionally charged issue simultaneously? What about a case when the root cause of this stressful issue actually lies within the task itself?

Most likely – your performance will suffer at least a little bit. And this is exactly what happens in many cases when we approach our tasks: we are much more interested to relieve the stress that comes from doing the job by finishing it as quickly as possible than to do it in the best way possible. Of course, ultimately we end up spending more time doing the job because in an attempt to finish things quickly we make more mistakes and need to repair them.

A classical example would be dealing with a vendor who’s forcefully pushing a product to be purchased by us. We are not sure if it really suits our needs or is needed at all. However, the agent being pushy, we just want to get him off our backs and to hell with it. Pretty soon, this purchase can boomerang back with devastating results. Or even worse – it will not happen the first time so we’ll keep acting like this until it really explodes in our face.

People also try the ultimate shortcut of trying to pass the stressful task to someone else – this is without a doubt the quickest way to relieve the stress when the results of the work mean nothing to you. However, experience tells us that this method may backfire catastrophically for the person involved, because if there is someone else who may do their job better – they’ve just made themselves irrelevant to the organization and have therefore became the first candidate to be cast off when the moment comes.

To avoid this pitfall you should study yourself in order to recognize the first signs of stress. From the moment that you know that your need to relieve the stress is greater than your intention to do the job properly, you can turn to alternative strategies, such as postponing the decision moment until the stress is gone or weighing the consequences of the current way of action. Trying to turn the focus back to the future (yeah, that was a pun 🙂 ) will decrease the importance of the immediate stress.

2. Our desire to ignore bad news or negative consequences of our actions

If the previous point dealt with the immediate stress of performing a task, this one deals with the delayed stress of dealing with future risks and the consequences of our actions.

When approaching a task, all options should be considered equally – optimistic predictions should be balanced with a more realistic or even pessimistic approach. But this is against our nature – the possibility of receiving bad news or dealing with a risk frightens us and causes us to concentrate on the positive exclusively. Of course, negating the possibility that something may go wrong or that at least some resistance may be encountered does nothing to alleviate the actual risk  or to advise us what to do when things don’t go as planned.

Many times people set unrealistic timelines for their projects, not allowing for friction and contingencies, based on an assumption that in the worse-case scenario those timelines just could be harmlessly extended. However, at later stages it may become clear that painful compromises on requirements should be made as there is no time to validate the product. And of course, non-validated product means many angry calls to client support …

Some people even refuse to listen to bad news that have already become reality: a critical delay or failure, a canceled deal or a key person leaving the project, and do their best to act as if nothing of the kind happened. When the reality cannot be ignored any longer – it is usually too late to make use of that critical information, and the failure becomes final.

However, this problem could be easily overcome by reminding yourself that for a Manager there is no bad news! For us problems are our bread and butter, because if people knew how to solve problems by themselves – who would need Managers? Carefully weighing all possible scenarios of the future, without giving any preference to either pessimistic or the optimistic ones is also a good strategy.

Sounds interesting? Then next week let’s discuss the next three reasons for why we create new problems by trying to solve the existing ones. Look it up! 🙂

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