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How To Use Second-Order Thinking For a Creative Problem-Solving Process

problem solving

In the late 1950s, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched a campaign to get rid of four types of pests he deemed responsible for the “transmission of pestilence and disease.” Specifically: mosquitos, rodents, flies, and sparrows—the latter of which ate away grain and fruit crops.

To get rid of the birds, Chinese officials held competitions, handing out prizes for those who could bring them the most dead sparrows.

So people began shooting sparrows from the sky. They destroyed nests. City dwellers generated loud noises to scare sparrows from landing on buildings, to the point that exhausted birds were allegedly dropping from the sky.

And then suddenly Chinese rice fields started yielding fewer crops.

It turned out that sparrows didn’t just eat grain. They also ate insects that ate grain. As the sparrow population neared extinction, the grain-eating insect population exploded. The bugs devoured more grain than the sparrows used to.

China soon fell into a famine that killed more than 20 million people. The sparrow-killing campaign was one of its large contributing factors.

History is full of stories like this, where well-meaning solutions to problems create unintended consequences. Engineers call this sort of thing “second-order effects.”

A first-order effect is what happens when you do something.

  • You tell people to kill the birds, so people kill the birds.

A second-order effect is what happens because of that.

  • You tell people to kill the birds, so people kill the birds...
  • And then insects eat all the crops.

A key characteristic of effective problem solving groups is their capacity to preventi unintended consequences

In business, we’re often just as guilty as Mao of not thinking through the potential second-order effects of our decisions. I suspect this is because we tend to fall in love with our ideas—or perhaps because we’re each highly incentivized in business to be The One who comes up with the winning idea. We do whatever we can to make our ideas work, rather than thinking through whether an idea will work out best for the big picture before we get married to it.

That’s entirely human. And it’s a natural consequence of trying to do what’s best. But some of the worst mistakes we can make are the result of well-intended attempts to create desired first-order effects, without regard to the second-order effects.

This is one of the reasons, I’m convinced, that the United States has so far failed to contain the current coronavirus like other developed nations have. By leaving containment and testing strategies up to individual states and cities, areas that prioritized the first-order effect of keeping their local economy running have created the second-order effect of increased infections—and not just in their own areas, but for other parts of the country.

At the same time, many people have scorned people like Elon Musk for suggesting that a blanket shut-down strategy could create more global death and poverty in the long run than a different strategy.

Regardless of whether such an argument turns out to be right, refusing to engage in such a conversation about second-order consequences is like refusing to entertain the idea that fewer sparrows might actually lead to fewer crops. Hearing out objections like Musk's could help us to reframe the challenge at hand. It's not just about stopping a virus in a local area—nor keeping a local economy going; the real challenge is to do those things while preventing unintended ripple effects.

Combating an invisible virus is a complicated endeavor. But regardless of the details of the situation, the challenge remains this: We need to solve our problems without creating other problems.

And yet, whether we’re talking about public health or the health of our businesses, we too-often focus just on solving our first-order problems.

A Simple Habit For Second-Order Thinking

In a recent episode of the Lateral Thinking Series for the podcast Innovation & Leadership that I’ve been recording, I talked with host Jess Larsen about a simple thing that we can all do to have better “second-order thinking.”


That thing is to make sure that when we’re solving problems, we ask the right questions.

Specifically, whenever we’re working on a hard question, we ought to append parameters to it that can account for second-order effects.

In a common business scenario, instead of asking:

  • “How can we increase sales?”

...we ought to ask:

  • “How can we increase sales…
  • without hurting our reputation or long-term customer retention?”
  • (Or whatever the important second-order effects we’d like to ensure.)

Answers that satisfy the latter question won't just be more interesting. They're likely to be more innovative.

In the case of a public health crisis, instead of asking:

  • “How can we keep our local economy going?”

... we ought to ask:

  • “How can we keep our local economy the most healthy…
  • in the long term,
  • with the minimal loss of life and livelihood in our community
  • and our neighbors’ communities?”

The answer to that question may be harder to come up with—but it will be smarter.

At the end of the day, hard problems require tradeoffs and risk-taking. We can't avoid unintended consequences. Second-order thinking is just about being more thoughtful about those risks. It's a simple habit that can make us smarter, too.

For example, back in 1958, when Mao asked, “How can we kill the sparrows?”, he could have added “...without having an adverse effect on our crops?” This, actually, would have been helpful, because it would have made clear that “killing the sparrows” was not the right framing for the question. Taking the second-order effects into account could have led to a question more like, “How can we get pests to eat fewer crops?” or “How can we increase our crop yields without any negative effects on health or the agricultural ecosystem?”

After all, the goal was not to get rid of sparrows; it was to feed more people.