You've probably heard the old joke about the drunk stumbling around under a lamppost late at night. A passing policeman asks what he's doing. 'Looking for my keys,' he replies. The policeman puts on his powerful torch, but they can't find any keys. 'Are you sure you dropped them here?' asks the policeman. 'No,' says the drunk. 'I dropped them over there, but over there it's too dark to see.'
This is also a good diagnosis of many management failures. It works for the organisation: a supermarket does very well out of squeezing costs, so when it hits hard times it squeezes even harder. Then it finds that its stores are outdated, its staff too scarce and its suppliers are substituting horse for beef.
It also works at a personal level, as in the depressingly common phenomenon of compulsive micro-managers. When they started out they had a few things to take care of and they were successful by controlling every last detail. Then they acquire larger responsibilities and still try to take care of every detail, with the usual frustrating results.
In both cases, a vicious circle starts to operate. What was a solution becomes part of the problem. Excessive cost-cutting turns customers away, depressing profits and creating even greater pressure on costs. Micromanagement demotivates staff, leading to lower performance.
Attempted solutions make the problem worse, which leads to more attempted solutions, which makes the problem even worse, and so it goes. The circle is given an extra shove by cognitive narrowing: as the situation gets more difficult, rising anxiety creates tunnel vision and it becomes even harder to think of different ways of achieving the desired result.
Are you doing something where the usual methods seem to produce less and less improvement? If so, take a step back. Look for the vicious circle. You are doing something that used to work but now makes things worse. You don't need more of the same, but something different.
Alastair Dryburgh is the strategist for people impatient to do big things and frustrated with the usual methods. More at www.alastairdryburgh.com