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Visible and Hidden Problems

Some problems are easier to see than others. If you look for problems, there are some that are pretty easy to find, and some that are hard to find. Some problems are so easy to find that you’ll find them without even looking for problems. Other problems are so hard to find that you could fail to find them after a lifetime of searching.

There are often many related problems. Having no money is a problem that’s easy to notice. But it’s not the whole story. What’s the cause or underlying issue? Maybe it’s because you disliked the jobs you tried and spend most of your time intentionally unemployed. That’s not very hidden either. Why do you dislike those jobs? Maybe you didn’t like being bossed around to do things that you consider unwise. Maybe you didn’t like being bossed around because you’d rather boss others around. Maybe you’re lazy. There are lots of potential problems here.

There can be many, many layers of problems, and the deeper layers are often harder to analyze, so the problems there are more hidden.

Hard to find problems can be impactful. People often see negative consequences in their lives but don’t understand enough about what is causing those consequences.

Like maybe you don’t have many friends and you want more. But you keep not really getting along with people. But you don’t know much about what’s going wrong. Or you might think you know what the problems are, but be wrong – it’s actually mainly something else you never thought of. People often try to solve the wrong problem.

One problem solving strategy people have is to find all the most visible, easy-to-find problems they can and solve them.

This is like going around and cutting off the tips of icebergs. You have these problem-icebergs and you get rid of the visible part and leave the hidden part as a trap. That actually makes things worse and will lead to more boats crashing because now the icebergs are still there but are harder to see. (Actually I’m guessing if you cut the tip of the iceberg then off the rest would float up a little higher and become visible. But pretend it wouldn’t.)

Your visible problems are your guide to where your hidden problems are. They’re not a perfect, reliable or complete guide. But they give pretty good hints. Lots of your invisible problems are related to your visible problems. If you get rid of the visible problems and then start looking for more problems, it’ll be hard to find anything. You basically went around and destroyed most of your evidence about what invisible problems you have.

What should you do instead?

Don’t rush to make changes. Do investigations and post mortems when you identify problems. Look for related problems. Take your time and try to understand root causes more deeply.

Once you have a deeper understanding of the situation, you can try to come up with the right high-power solutions that will solve many related problems at once.

If you target a solution at one problem, you’re likely to fix it in a parochial, unprincipled way – put a band-aid on it.

If you figure out ten problems including some that were harder to see, and you come up with ten solutions, then each of the solutions is likely to be superficial.

But if you figure out ten problems and come up with one solution to address all ten at once, then that solution has high leverage. There’s some conceptual reasoning for how it works. It involves a good explanation. It has wider reach or applicability. It’s more principled or general purpose.

So, not only will this solution solve ten problems at once, it will probably solve twenty more you didn’t know about. It works on some whole categories of problems, not just one or a few specific problems. So it’ll also solve many similar problems that you didn’t even realize you had.

Elliot Temple on February 25, 2023


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