Focus on Addressing the Right Problem

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Guest post by John Hunter, founder of the

Have you ever tried running through water?  You don’t get very far very fast.  If you have water up to your waist, and you try to run, your progress is very slow.  Sure, you could put in more effort and maybe try to improve your technique to run faster through water.

Swimming through the water could be another option for improvement. If your goal is to move faster, it is likely better to get out of the water and run without the resistance of water. In some cases, a better way to look at the situation might be that you first drain the water and then run.

To improve, it is important to understand what you are trying to achieve. Then you need to think properly about the systems you are in, and what systems you are interacting with, to figure out how to go about improvement. Trying to solve the wrong problem makes improvement much more difficult.

Looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy and thinking you need to accept the prevalence of COVID-19 as a given and just trying to think of how to “run faster,” is not an ineffective way to improve the economy (to say nothing of all the lives that will be lost and all the long-term health consequences of those who recover from a bout with COVID-19). Looking critically at the problem, it seems to me that the correct strategy is to focus on how to remove the resistance of the “water” (COVID-19).

While that means the progress is slowed while you address the COVID-19 problem, you will then create conditions that allow for success. Also by acknowledging the priority, you can then spend your efforts on dealing with the problems of getting the countermeasures to COVID-19 successfully implemented. The failure of the USA to properly use masks, eliminate indoor gatherings (such as bars, restaurants…) and to react to new infections quickly (which requires enough testing, that provides accurate results within 24 hours and with proper contact tracing and responses to what it learned to reduce spread) has caused great harm. And we have learned that getting the sensible measures adopted will take much more effort than we might have thought before we had seen how we have behaved the last 6 months.

To focus on improving the economy,  the primary focus has to be on reducing the presence of COVID-19 (removing the water). No matter how you try to run faster while in the water, it is just not possible to be very effective. If the water is up to your ankles, you can run nearly as well as if there was no water. But with it up to your waist, it doesn’t really matter how much effort you put into running better; you can’t be effective.

Knowing what problem you need to work on solving is often more difficult than it seems. You need to understand the systems that are involved and how they interact to know where you should focus your efforts. It seems to me we are making a big mistake by not putting nearly all our focus on trying to improve the economy by focusing on reducing the prevalence of COVID-19. Just like someone trying to run better through waist-high water, it is much more effective to put efforts into reducing the resistance the “water” creates, even if that means you make little progress for awhile. You just won’t be effective until that condition is changed. And putting your efforts into running better or harder instead of changing the situation is the wrong strategy.

Related: Improving Problem SolvingThe Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

3 thoughts on “Focus on Addressing the Right Problem”

  1. I love this metaphor. I don’t work in public policy. I’m a manager of software engineering for a large company. But, this analogy is apt for so many problems in my organization. We spend so much time on bandaids – learning to swim faster. This metaphor has really helped me explain a systems approach to the problem. Thank you!!!

  2. It is true the metaphor doesn’t capture how complex the real situation is. There are measures that have to be taken to cope with the damage to the economy right away. But the systemic view has to be on how to most rapidly reduce covid19 and definitely when doing so that must be considered first. So certain parts of the economy that will most damage the entire system by increasing covid19 rates will suffer (where people will congregate indoors and mask wearing won’t be sufficient – restaurants, bars, movie theaters, plays…).

    And part of that interplay of factors is that the less rigorous the use of masks, physical distancing and testing (with appropriate response times to allow for isolation and contact tracing and isolation of those in contact with infected people) the more restrictive the conditions will have to be on the various parts of the economy. To reduce those restrictions the factors that can help control the spread of covid19 with less economic restrictions have to be practiced. Sadly that has been done fairly poorly around the world (with several very obvious exceptions that have done much better that other places). The USA has done very poorly at practicing measures that would allows the economy to suffer less.

    Taking a system approach it would make sense then to subsidize those losing out (people in those industries that society cannot afford to have continue as they had before). Exactly how you do that gets complicated but that principle makes sense to me. And it would similarly make sense to expect those industries you are allowing to do better (by clamping down on covid19 throughout society) would share some of the costs that are being shouldered by the society. This part is particularly unlikely to happen as the idea of shared responsibility has declined quite rapidly in society over the last few decades.

    The value economic prosperity provides society is large and often overlooked (we take for granted how well off we are in the USA for example). I have written about this previously, for example, in the first post on this blog

    I appreciate how important it is for the economy to be strong (not so stock prices stay high, but so the standard of living for everyone can stay high). That is why it is so important that we do everything possible to aid the economy and that means accepting the some short term suffering that measures to control covid19 require as the sensible response to maximize the economic prosperity for the next few years.

    It isn’t an either/or question but a complex system with many interacting parts. We do need to take care to keep the economy going and ready to recover as the public health measures prove successful in bringing the crisis under control. If the economy is too destroyed to function effectively by the time the public health crisis is brought under control the consequences for the next few years and even decade will be extremely large. The need is to focus not on increasing the GDP this quarter but keeping the capability of the economy to recover when the time is right (and that is not a simple matter, in fact it is quite complex). The complexity of that problem has become much greater in the last 6 months than it could have been had the public health crisis been managed more effectively from the start.

  3. While efforts on removal of water (COVID Vaccine) are on in parallel, the efforts to improve running (Economy boost package etc.) cannot wait for removal of water (COVID) first.
    Both has to go hand in hand. I agree on a fact that effectiveness of secondary actions will not be as great as it could have been…
    But, is there any other choice??

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