By Linda Fisher Thornton
Sometimes out of fear, convenience or profit, leaders use a solution that goes way beyond what is necessary to solve the problem or meet the need. There are broad ethical implications of over solving problems, and this post explores some of them.
When we choose a solution that is more extreme than necessary, we may cause negative unintended consequences. And the more extreme that solution is, the more extreme the consequences may be. See Overuse of Antibiotics: Antibiotic Hand Soap is Part of the Problem for a current example. In this example, the consumer may feel “safe” using antibacterial soap to kill germs. The problem is that over time, using antibiotic hand soap actually worsens the problem it is trying to resolve.
Possible Unintended Consequences of Over-Solving Problems
When we over-solve problems, we may be thinking only short-term. In the antibiotic hand soap example, when a customer washes her hands at the kitchen sink, the soap kills germs (short-term). Long-term, though, that choice can make the problem worse through a “rebound effect,” and risk human health by putting a steady stream of antibiotics into our water supply.
Using Systems Thinking to Anticipate Unintended Consequences
It may sound like common sense to use the solution that causes the least harm and still solves the problem. But consider how different that choice seems when an extreme solution that would cause unintended consequences is 50 times more profitable.
Using systems thinking helps us think beyond profitability and helps us prevent the kind of narrow, short-term thinking that leads to unethical choices. When we think in systems, the variables of time, interdependence and connectedness are “built in.”
“Systems thinking can be thought of as a language for communicating about complexities and interdependencies.”
“An inherent assumption of the systems thinking worldview is that problems are internally generated—we often create our own “worst nightmares.”
Michael Goodman, Systems Thinking as a Language, Pegasus Systems Thinker online at appliedsystemsthinking.com
As leaders, we need to be mindful of the need to “dial it back” to the least harmful solution that solves the problem, and to choose sensible solutions based on much more than profitability.
These related posts illustrate why we need to use ethical thinking:
5 Unintended Consequences of Linear Problem Solving Precautionary Principle: Profiting With Care
10 Reasons to Embrace Complexity Ethical Leadership Context
These websites provide free tools and articles for thinking through complex problems:
powerful-problem-solving.com mindtools.com pegasuscom.com appliedsystemsthinking.com
Questions for Reflection:
1. Where in our work are we using a solution that is much more extreme than necessary?
2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that choice?
3. How can we dial it back to a solution that better fits the problem and minimizes unintended consequences?
© 2013 Leading in Context LLC
Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm, and was recently named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. Her mission is to clarify what it means to lead responsibly in a complex world.