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Solving vs. preventing problems

Solving a problem is a visible action that one could take credit for. Preventing a problem is an action that doesn’t have a visible outcome of the same kind, so it’s hard or impossible to take credit for solving a problem that didn’t take place.

From the book The Sources of Power by Gary Klein:

One critical type of cue that surprises experts, but not novices, is the absence of a key event. Since novices do not know what is supposed to happen, they are slow to appreciate the significance of something not happening.

The fact that each of us is an expert in only a few areas and a novice in million others means that we almost always recognize and reward people who solve immediate problems—even if they caused the problems themselves—much more than people who prevent those problems from happening in the first place.

Update 2023-06-01

Srđan asks on Twitter:

At least we can make it visible in retrospect by tracking trends. If there are no spikes in undesired events or dips in desired outcomes, then that would indicate that one is preventing problems. What are your thoughts?

Yes, it could be possible to indicate it as you described. However, there are several challenges with this approach:

  • You need many events to spot trends to a specific certainty. Many things happen only occasionally and won’t lend themselves well to this analysis.
  • Even if you have many events, correlation is not causation. Showing a causal link will be tricky and skeptics will challenge you.
  • If you have many events and can show a causal link, it may take time to gather data and analyze (also, do you have the skills or do you need someone’s help?). So instead of demonstrating impact now, it may take weeks, months, or even years to show it.

So it’s sometimes possible but always with more friction.

Update 2023-06-11

Farnam Street Brain Food newsletter No. 528 just arrived with this snippet at the end:

Preventing a problem vs. solving a problem:

I think about this phenomenon often. In this short clip, Clark Kent prevents the problem, and no one cares. Superman solves the problem and becomes a hero.

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