Common sense solutions to simple problems

Have you ever looked at a problem and immediately known how to solve it?

Have you ever seen that there’s already a group of people who are responsible for solving this problem this problem, and although they’re working on a fix they obviously have not seen the common sense solution that is so apparent to you?

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I knew we could park here! Problem solved!

Yeah[1].

In situations like these, there are three[2] potential reasons for what you’re seeing:

  1. The other people are just too stupid to to see the simple and obvious solution that’s been sitting right under their noses all this time.
  2. The other people, due to the time that they have spent closely examining the problem and potential solutions, have realized that the simple and obvious solution doesn’t actually address the problem – even though common sense suggests that it should – or that the solution has unintended side-effects that outweigh its benefits.
  3. The other people are responsible for additional problems and solutions across a broader or more strategic scope, and although the simple solution may make sense in isolation, implementing it has been deferred to enable work on other, higher priority problems.

(At this point I feel compelled to point out that this is something I’ve thought about for decades, and I’ve had a draft blog post on this subject for almost a year. I’m not trying to subtweet[3] anyone. I’ve had several people recently reach out to me to make sure that they’re not the reason I tweet periodic reminders that lazy communication is theft, so a disclaimer here feels appropriate.)

In my experience, many people seem to automatically gravitate to the first choice, and that bias seems exacerbated by differences in perspective. If the observer is in a business group and the solution team is in IT – or vice versa[4] – it’s easy for them to miss the complexity and nuance in something that appears simple and straightforward from the outside.

Part of this challenge is inherent in this type of relationship. It’s natural and appropriate to hide internal complexity from external stakeholders. I’m pretty sure I even learned about this in college… not that I remember college[5].

But part of it is the choice we make when we engage in the cross-team relationship. Every time we see a “simple problem” with an “obvious” or “easy” or “common sense” solution we get to decide how to react. We can assume that we know everything important and that the “other guy” is an idiot… or we can consider the option that there might be something we don’t already know.

The choice is ours.


[1] This is less of an actual footnote than a tool to enforce a dramatic pause as you read. Assuming you read footnotes as you go through the post, rather than reading them all at the end. I may need more telemetry to better understand use behavior. Why aren’t any simple problems actually as simple as they first seem?

[2] If you can think of other reasons that aren’t just variations on these three, I would love to hear about them in the comments. My list used to only include the first two reasons, but over the last few years I’ve added the third.

[3] Sub-blog? is that a thing?

[4] There are scores of other variations on this theme – I picked this one because it’s likely to be familiar to the people I imagine read my blog.

[5] Maybe this?

2 thoughts on “Common sense solutions to simple problems

  1. Charles Sterling

    This could be a mashup of 2 & 3, that when you are too close to the problem it’s more difficult to see a simple solution. “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Godel’s Incompleteness theorems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems) may be instructive, or the thinking that got us into this situation is not sufficient to get us out. Sometimes technology changes to make a previous solution unnecessary, but we could be too invested in the current model. This article in an interesting example of the latter: https://www.holistics.io/blog/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-olap-cube/

    Like

  2. I have a lot of resonance with this post. For about the first 23 years of my career I was NOT in IT and the IT ‘slowness’ and reluctance to ‘try new things’ really irritated me. Then I got pulled on to an IT project as a Subject Matter Expert, and worked on that from 5 years. I had a ringside seat to how difficult it was to a) implement change and b) anticipate the consequences and prepare the business for them.
    AND I was on the receiving end of the users’ frustration, and was in the position of having to explain/defend the decisions we made regarding technology/IT on the project.
    What an eye opener!

    Like

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