Stuckey’s Axiom

Years ago Steve Stuckey, a colleague in InterVarsity, told me a story about Campus by the Sea on Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California. Rattlesnakes have been on the island for time out of mind. In the mid-1930s, some enterprising folk brought in wild pigs to keep the snake population under control. The plan worked great. Fewer snakes.

But then the wild pigs started to roam all over, invading campgrounds and other areas. So some enterprising folk used a dog, Cinder, to keep the pigs at bay. The plan worked great. Fewer pigs.

But Cinder left lots of little presents lying around, making things very unpleasant for those at the campground. So some workers were given the task of cleaning up after the dogs. The plan worked great. Fewer presents for people to step in.

But then the pigs got the better of Cinder. Within weeks of Cinder’s retirement, the pigs were back.

All of this took place over the course of decades, with one group of leaders not being fully aware of what previous groups had done before to solve the problems.

Many lessons could be learned from this tale, I’m sure, not the least that a judicious knowledge of the history of your enterprise can come in handy. But the axiom I draw was this: Managers don’t solve problems. They just trade one set of problems for another.

I’ve found this to be a helpful perspective when trying to fix something on the job. It makes me look at the downside of any solution–no matter how elegant a solution may seem. And then I try to decide if I can live with the downside or not.

If customers keep asking for certain information you don’t have readily, you might put in place a system to gather and store the data, and make it easily available. But almost inevitably that system will take lots of work to maintain and perhaps distract employees from other tasks that are also important. Can you live with that?

Stuckey’s Axiom is a corollary of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The trick, of course, is to do your best to anticipate the unanticipated. But knowing that no solution will be perfect, that there will always be new problems ahead is, as they say, half the battle.