Problem Solving – All Buck and No Bang

There are two ways to solve a problem:

First order problem solving:

Also known as the quick fix.

This type of problem solving removes the issue.  E.g. getting the information you need to finish a task.  But it doesn’t do anything to stop the problem happening again.

Fixing a problem this way often causes a problem somewhere else. A cleaner whose trolley is missing cleaning materials can take them from another trolley.  He solves his problem, but moves it on to someone else.  He might even make the problem worse — what if the shops are shut when the second cleaner turns up for work?

Quick fixes are quick — honestly — but quick fixes need repeating over and over again.

First order problem solving doesn’t solve problems, and it doesn’t do much for morale.

Second order problem solving:

Also known as hard work.

This approach requires some serious investigation into what went wrong and why. Then more thought to remove the causes of the failure so it doesn’t ever happen again.  Harder still, it usually involves collaboration with other departments and functions.  A little give and take and some interpersonal skill and diplomacy.

But people get a buzz from doing it.

Problems fixed this way tend to stay fixed. It isn’t quick but it is effective.

The economics of problem solving:

First order problem solving:
  • Short on investment
  • Long on ongoing costs
  • The problems keep coming back
  • Upsets your staff
Second order problem solving:
  • Long on investment
  • Short on ongoing costs
  • The problems disappear
  • Engages your staff

Of course there is a time and a place for the quick fix. But it isn’t all the time.

Where are you investing yours?

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Image by Quinn Dombrowski


  1. Most companies choose the quick fix… it’s cheaper, less time consuming, and, well, it “fixes” the problem. It’s a great proxy for the short-term thinking that companies have. Long-term thinking is hard work. Most companies – and people – shy away from hard work.

  2. Hello James,

    Some would say that we (human beings, organisations, institutions) are not made for second order thinking. I think that was the conclusion Daniel Kahneman came to.

  3. James,
    I reckon that the fact that second order thinking requires ‘some serious investigation into what went wrong and why’ is one of the main reasons why it doesn’t happen more often as somebody is going to have to take responsibility for whatever has gone wrong. Exec self preservation at work?


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