One of my mentors in college was Russ Ackoff, a Wharton management professor who died in November. One of the things he told us repeatedly was that problems didn't usually require solutions, but rather systems redesigns. This isn't necessarily a very popular position, especially for very focused people like MBAs; I had the sense that the consensus among Wharton students was he was brilliant, but safe to disagree with (outside of his earshot, anyway).

This came to mind as I was reading Christopher Beam's essay explaining why we're bad at dealing with "unlikely but disastrous events" like the current Deepwater Horizon disaster threatening the Gulf coast:

The best responses to unlikely events take a holistic look at the problem, says [John] Harrald [a professor at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management]. Rare events "raise opportunities to look at whole systems and get the political will and public support to do something about it." In this case, that might mean not only examining the safety of tankers and oil rigs, but also reducing our dependence on oil in favor of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. But that might be the most unlikely event of all.

Sounds very much like Ackoff. As Beam puts it,

the real lesson of the oil spill may be how bad we are at dealing with unlikely but disastrous events. "We deal with them by ignoring them until they happen, and then overreacting," says John Harrald…. It's one thing to look back and figure out how the oil spill could have been prevented. It's another to grapple with the combination of poor foresight and 20/20 hindsight that makes preventing these meltdowns so difficult.

Beam's other reasons:

  • "The problem begins with the way we assess risk. The less likely an event, the less a company—or a government, or an individual—feels the need to guard against it."
  • "[S]ome precautions only make sense hindsight…. [T[he precautions necessary to prevent the BP oil spill—some are blaming the absence of a sonar device used on rigs in Norway and Brazil to shut off the flow of oil—would probably have been dismissed as overly draconian. Now we'd be crazy not to require it.
  • "Then there's the difficulty of cost-benefit analysis when it comes to low-probability, high-consequence events."
  • When it comes to actually fixing problems, we're almost as incompetent. "We tend to regulate for that very specific event," says Harrald…. But overly narrow regulation can have unintended consequences. A crackdown on off-shore drilling might be politically smart, but it could drive business to countries with even less regulation of their oil industries. It could also boost demand for tankers, which have historically spilled more oil than American oil rigs.

The whole piece is well worth reading.