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Whack-a-mole

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Whack-a-mole

Scott Miker

Have you ever been in an older arcade and seen the Whack-a-mole game?  You have a big rubber hammer and the goal is to hit (whack) these little moles that pop out of holes.  The more you can hit the more points you gain.

It is a fun game but it is amazing how many times I have heard managers talk about whack-a-mole in the work environment.

One of the first times I heard that analogy was when I took over a failing program at one of the largest chambers of commerce in the country.  We had a new program that couldn’t gain traction despite several product managers, marketing tactics, re-launches, pivots etc.

When I took over I started to slowly improve the program.  But as soon as I would fix one problem another problem popped up.  It seemed that every time I improved something, some other problem would appear.

My boss said it was playing whack-a-mole.  At the time I remember thinking that was exactly what it felt like.

I have since heard this analogy used many times while leading projects.  It always seems to appear when a certain structure is in place.

Almost always when a program/product/project etc. relies too much on quick, symptom-specific, Band-Aid fixes, numerous problem areas build up.  But even when we start to unravel the chaos and fix the various problems additional problems surely pop up.

This forms because instead of putting in place the right systems, structures, etc. we just do a quick fix that from a systems perspective simply puts a delay into the feedback loop or it just addresses the symptoms of the problem.  It doesn’t solve the problem; it just takes away the present discomfort around the problem. 

Usually the Whack-a-mole feeling subsides as we start to tackle the root causes and find out more about the system than the symptom we are experiencing. 

The tendency at this point in the project is almost always to do quick fixes to just keep your head above water and avoid drowning in the work.  But this will just leave the mole to pop up later, probably at another inconvenient time.

Instead we have to stop and find ways to fix each problem systematically.  Each problem represents a system problem.  It could be that the process we use has a hole in it and certain types of issues will continue to pop up if we don’t fix the process.  Or it could be that the system was unintentionally designed to create this problem. 

As you start to do this you will notice the Whack-a-mole feeling continue for a bit.  It takes a long time for the various systems fixes to all add up to a noticeable difference.  But soon you will start to suddenly stop and realize, wow there aren’t these same types of issues coming up.

Then you can continue to focus on systems fixes.  Instead of trying to avoid drowning you can actively seek out how to improve and get better.  You can strategize and determine the best way to move forward, continuing to grow at each stage. 

I have since noticed this systems structure in my personal life as well.  As soon as I get a handle on my eating habits I realize that my exercise habits are causing a problem.  As soon as I create a system for a new goal I have a problem pops up with my financial/budgeting systems.  It always seems like problems just jump around, rather than getting solved. 

But over time improvement is possible but MUST come from the systems perspective.  We can’t slap a Band-Aid on everything and expect it to improve.  That just stops the bleeding but doesn’t necessarily fix the root cause of why we needed that fix in the first place.

Look for areas of your life where you feel like you are playing Whack-a-mole.  Realize this will be difficult, frustrating and hard but if you keep focused on fixing the root, system cause of the problem eventually these will start to add up and you won’t be inundated with problem after problem after problem.