Graffiti by Kat Kotria(We are going to look at a particular problem today as an example of how problems are usually solved. We could have chosen any number of problems but this one is something that everyone can relate to.)

What’s more important? Eliminating a wall covered with graffiti or preventing a murder? Most people would easily answer preventing a murder. But our actions don’t match our choice.

First some background.

Modern graffiti started in the 1960s, first appearing in Philadelphia and later spreading to New York City. Today, it’s everywhere, much of it spread by the rise in gangs tagging their territory.

The broken windows theory was introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling – basically, if you deter minor crimes you will deter major crimes. There’s some controversy surrounding this theory as there is with most social theories – it’s so hard to prove absolutely. But there have been some claims of success in New York City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lowell, Massachusetts and the Netherlands.

Graffiti is one of the minor crimes targeted because it’s reasoned that it creates an atmosphere of neglect and apathy on the part of the residents – particularly if it’s left in place.
But consider the pressures on you if you are on the city council of Spokane, Washington. (It really could be any city, but I live here, so that’s just Spokane’s bad luck.) Crime is a concern of the citizens – but the police are not in good standing because of recent cases of brutality (Otto Zehm)[]. The natural inclination is to be firm on crime – you can’t appear easy on thieves, murderers or rapists. So where do you want the police to focus their efforts? Yeah, on the serious stuff.

But what if you could reduce the number of cases of thief, murder, rape – assault of all kinds – but it will take three to five years to see the results? And it requires using police to go after graffiti artists? And the immediate payoff is, to quote the Spokesman Review:

“Vandals found responsible for graffiti would face a gross misdemeanor charge, which has a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine. The rules also say that the parent of a minor “arrested or found committing” an act of vandalism in the form of graffiti may be held “jointly” liable for the damage.”

So the maximum penalty is 90 days and $1,000 fine. Plus the cost of the court and the time to investigate and prosecute. Is it worth it? For a crime that is rarely caught?

The answer is no. Enforcement was transferred from the police to code enforcement. The focus now is on property owners cleaning up the graffiti within 10 days. The theory is to discourage graffiti artists by covering up their work. One person described how she covered up graffiti only to have the graffiti artist come the next day and repeat their work. And this went on for a week.
This situation is a great example of several principles of dealing with problems that Peter Senge covered in his book, The Fifth Discipline.

Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

It’s hard to see the relationship between graffiti and major crimes because of the time involved between living in the environment of graffiti and the commission of a major crime, we don’t see how they are related – so they are dealt with in isolation. The police will rightly proclaim that it’s not their job to help create a positive environment for people to live and work in. The residents can only deal with the graffiti on their own property – and why bother if it’s just going to occur again? They’re busy trying to live their lives.

Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

Graffiti in Spokane is reported to have declined by 40%. One reason claimed is the city’s website where you can report graffiti including uploading pictures of the graffiti. It’s easy and quick leading to an increase in the number of reports. This is a small change – reporting via the website rather than a phone call. But consider the results: It’s quicker, pictures are included immediately (no need for a city employee to go out and take the picture), there’s no need to transcribe the phone message to the computer system (the reporter does that), and the city has an immediate record of graffiti which is up to date at minimal cost.

Accurate information is the basis for problem solving. But it’s not obvious because it’s usually considered too hard or take too long to get accurate information. Which leads to the next point.

The immediate takes precedence over the important.

We spoke before that leaders are under intense pressure to appear to be doing something to solve problems. Sitting still is not an option if you want to be re-elected. This is seen with the reaction by politicians to any major news story – they will propose a new law to solve the crisis!

But most problems are the result of long processes. Very few people wake up one day and decide to be a bank robber. Looking back over their life we could see the situations and decisions that led them to that final decision. I was started on the path to a Ph.D. in physics because my grandmother gave me a stargazing kit for Christmas when I was 12. But what if she had given me a geology or cooking kit? The result would have been entirely different – maybe. The immediate decision my grandmother had to solve was what to give me for Christmas, the long-term consequences were never part of her decision making process.

It’s this focus on the immediate over importance that results in so many problems in the future. As we said earlier, today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

A Solution

So how do you deal with a problem that has a long cause and effect process? Unfortunately, there’s no simple, easy answer. It will involve education – you have to educate people on how the process causing the problem really works. This goes against all of our natural tendencies – particularly, Americans. We want our problem solved NOW! And the troops home by Christmas!

And you can’t educate through a boring repetition of facts. The campaign to encourage designated drivers is an excellent example of doing it right. Everyone understands that it’s important to have a designated driver for safety, but who’s going to do it? So the creators of the designated driver program went to Hollywood and spoke with the screenwriters and made a simple request. Every time there was a scene where people were drinking, have one person decline a drink and declare they were the designated driver. Because it appeared over and over again on the screen, it become the accepted norm.

So finding an entertaining means of educating is critical or continue creating problems for tomorrow.

Next, having your cake and eating it, too.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.