Jan 152012

Focusing on the causes to avoid future problems

Whew! Sometimes we get lucky and unexpected situations don’t take us out of the game.

After we dodge the proverbial bullet, conventional wisdom suggests we ought to figure out what happened and find a way to prevent it in the future if we can. Even more powerful wisdom suggests that we find ways to learn from the situation as part of a continuous improvement discipline.

Either way, it pays dividends to have the courage to act beyond the self-preservation of dodging the bullet. In this post, I want to highlight two considerations in this post:

  1. Finding the source of a breakdown can often be a matter of “framing”
  2. Finding a fundamental solution can be more powerful than finding a specific solution


Toby Hecht, leader of The Aji Network, often tells a story something like this:

You are heading to the airport, having left 30 minutes after you intended, and you get a flat tire. Your cell phone battery is dead, and by the time you get help and make it to the airport, you have missed your flight.

His question is then, where is the problem? In the context of this post, what is the cause?

Even as a contrived example, I have always thought this one could really happen. I take so many precautions to avoid missing flights, but this “perfect storm” comes to mind every time I head to the airport.

In this case, there is a cascade of possible mistakes. You could pick any one of them and possibly change the outcome.


Considering the specifics of the current situation, we could develop a great plan for preventing or circumventing the situation again in the future. Unfortunately, the same situation might not show up again in the same way.

In fact, isolating a specific approach to solving a specific problem could cause even worse situations if we mis-diagnose the situation we are in. That often happens when we chase fads and fail to make powerful interpretations of their fundamental meaning.

Fundamentals apply, well, fundamentally… in all situations and circumstances. I have been using fundamentals to bring new teams together throughout my career, always producing far beyond what many thought possible.

Fundamentals must also work equally well in problem solving. The closer we can get to a fundamental understanding of what went wrong, the more we can design fundamental interventions to prevent many more specific situations, including ones that are different from what we face today.

And that’s not all

In this post, I chose to write only about framing and fundamentals. It is also very common that our problems arise from cycles of more complicated cause/effect relationships – “systems”. We can come back to those another time.

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