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Archive for May, 2012

Solving the REAL Problem

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Fifty percent of good problem solving is knowing what the problem is. Too often, that step gets lost in the rush to make things “right.”  When that happens, instead of solving a problem, you just create more.

How do we miss on figuring out what’s wrong in the first place?  Lots of ways!

On the top of that list is the tendency to assume that a symptom is the problem itself.  It’s wet under your sink.  If you assume that’s the problem, then you will just mop up the water.  Problem solved?  Not really.  If it’s wet under your sink, somethng is leaking.  If you don’t find and fix the leak, the water will collect under the sink again and again, eventually rotting the wood.

It’s also easy to assume you know what is causing that symptom.  I had a nice little reminder of that last week.  I recently recoupled in terms of living arrangements and we are living in his house.  So all the peculiarities are new and different.  When the whole house circulating fan went on after I’d started my morning routine in the bathroom a few days ago, it included a rather irritating rattle, which kept going and going  and going.

I assumed it was the ceiling fan and went on with the teeth brushing, face washing, etc.  It was only when I had finished and opened a drawer to put away my hair brush that I found the real cause of the problem.  Once the drawer was opened, the rattle became much louder.  And when I investigated, I discovered I’d accidentally turned on the little battery powered gadget that takes fuzz off your clothing.

That example isn’t a big deal.  We hadn’t spent hundreds–or even thousands–of dollars to get the “not real” problem assessed and “repaired.”  But there have also been several situations where that kind of expense was involved.  Both were related to health care.

My significant other has a genetically transmitted kidney condition.   He does a great job of managing his diet and his lifestyle so that it’s not an issue for him.  But when he gets sick, the medical community automatically assumes it’s because of this condition.

The first time I was witness to this, the eventual diagnosis was pneumonia.   The second time, they ordered a series of high risk and expensive ($5000 a shot) injections to help his kidneys work with his blood.  Even when there was no improvement, they kept going.  The side effects of this treatment are serious–an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, for starters.

Eventually, the situation got so bad that he ended up in the emergency room and then admitted to the hospital.  And that’s when they took the time to find the real problem, which was a no-longer-indolent lymphoma that they’d noticed several years before.

We need to do better at diagnosing problems.  Right now, the Democrats have diagnosed the budget shortfall as not bringing enough money in.  The Republicans see it as a matter of spending too much.  It is both, but nothing is being done to solve the problem because neither side is willing to expand their diagnosis.

So what do we do about this as plain ordinary people?  Try not to fall into those same traps with your own problem solving, certainly.  But we can also serve as the “double check” with others making decisions on our behalf.

Ask questions to force those service providers to go beyond what they are assuming:

  • If a doctor says “Well, that’s just because of your XYZ disease ask”If I had not already been diagnosed with XYZ disease, what would you do to figure out my current health problem?”
  • If your mechanic tells you your car is just getting old, ask “If this car weren’t ten years old, what would you recommend?”
  • If your financial advisor says “The market is too unpredictable.  We can’t invest now.” ask “How do other advisors keep people invested in this kind of climate?”

It’s easy to see others’ shortcomings–and frustrating to have to deal with them when they are affecting our own quality of life.  But this is not a solo difficulty.  As a culture, we are used to instant fixes, be it while playing a video game or ordering a new bike off the internet in the middle of the night.

We all need to take more time to be sure we understand the problem we are trying to fix.  When you do, it increases the odds of it staying fixed once you address it considerably.


Courtesy versus Politics

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Remember when we were kids and our parents would mutter about friends who had the nerve to talk politics at a party?  That was the height of boorishness back then.  Anyone with five cents worth of manners knew that you didn’t talk politics—or religion—at a social gathering.  Whatever happened to that level of social awareness?

Now we are bombarded with opinions from friends, co-workers, family members, total strangers outside the supermarket—even phone-dialing robots.  It’s no wonder so many are so weary of the political environment.  It’s everywhere. It’s unceasing. And it has little to do with what you personally choose to believe.

We have devolved on this psychologically.  The “be nice” of the “50’s and 60’s” may have been for the wrong reasons—not rocking the boat, fitting in, whatever–but it was on target in terms of an intelligent way to deal with the diversity of opinion that exists simply because we are…well…a diverse population.

It is the mark of a socially un-evolved person to assume that everyone thinks just like you.  Yet that is exactly what’s going on now. If a person is your friend—or a member of your family—then of course you are going to agree with what they think about “the other side.”  It’s “us” and “them.”

We’ve lost our respect for the many nuances that make up individual opinions.

This attitude is just plain stunted.  How do you refine an opinion if you never go beyond hearing what people who agree with your current opinion have to say?  How do you become more educated about issues if you just buy in on a bunch of “other bashing” and call it good?

It doesn’t make any difference whether you are a citizen of the United States or a small, new, developing country.  Deciding another faction is wrong and that you need to fight diverts the energy of both groups from the common good.

Why are we doing it this way?

Media needs  Let’s face it.  A lot of what we decide to get worked up about is a function of so many media outlets needing something to talk about.  Novelists and screenwriters are taught to create “conflict on every page” because conflict makes for a more compelling story.  News channels and talk shows can’t (or at least should not) just make stuff up to be entertaining.  Instead, they fan tiny embers of disagreement into walls of flame for the sake of ratings (which drive advertising rates which in turn drive profits).

Easy mass message options  Before the Internet, if you wanted to rant, you needed to either walk to a busy street corner and try to get people to listen or write something and try to get it published—which often took years if it ever happened at all.  Now, every little thing that irritates you can be communicated to thousands in less than a minute.  When it took more effort, we were more selective about our “causes.”  Now, the wrong flowers planted in a roundabout are cause for an Internet campaign.  When so much energy is spent ranting about what’s wrong, there’s not much left to get things to go right.  So instead of solutions, we just keep generating “problems.”  That’s a lot easier to do, but socially we’re creating a helluva mess.

Weakened interpersonal skills  Talking with your thumbs removes a lot of the cues for good communication–no body language to read, no intonation to assess, no facial expressions to interpret.  Just words on a screen.  The ability to sense what a person really means is significantly diminished as a result.

So instead of dialogues—where you exchange ideas–we have “duologues”–where two people take turns talking but neither takes in information from the other.   Rather than sharpening both sets of opinions by carving away the fluff and nonsense, each person wraps his/her opinion in more and more layers of insulation.

So what’s a smart person to do?

Well, let’s start by not being willing to participate in these non-conversations.  We can hang up on robocalls, delete politically incendiary e-mail forwards without reading them, and give ourselves balanced news coverage in the variety of sources we use.

We need a total change of mindset: a calm, simple “No thank you” to every version of political diatribe.  Word fighting doesn’t serve any of us and a steady diet of it really is bad for your health. (It’s a horrendous source of stress.)