By MichaelaThursday, October 25th, 2007
The October 21, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle had an opinion piece by two colleaguesâ€”Tom Steinbach and Mike Howeâ€”on the need not just to buy hybrid cars but, more importantly, to build affordable housing so people are able to live close to where they work.
Tom, whom I have known for a number of years, was until recently the respected and highly successful executive director of Greenbelt Alliance; he is now a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation.
Mike, until recently, was the long-time executive director of the East Bay Community Foundation; he is now the interim ED at Greenbelt, as well as holding a research position at Stanford. I have known Mike since we both worked in Southeast Asian refugee resettlement way back in 1981: 26 years ago!
Tom and Mike wrote a provocative article in which they calculated the amount of gas used by a fictional guy named Dan to drive a Toyota Prius from Dublin (near Livermore, California) to his job in Silicon Valley. They then compared this with the amount of gas he would have used to drive a big SUV to the same jobâ€”but from a nearby home in Silicon Valleyâ€”IF he could afford to live there.
It turns out it is far better, in terms of fuel use and cost, to live near where you work, even if you drive the biggest gas guzzler of all.
They also highlighted the hours of commute time freed up for leisure activitiesâ€”hours that otherwise would be spent driving the Bay Area’s congested freeways.
I mention this article not only because I like and respect the authors, but because it illustrates one my favorite facts about organizational life: sometimes the obvious answer (buy a Prius) is not the best one.
In the ideal world, Dan would both buy a Prius and live close to his work, reducing his gas consumption to almost nothing. But, we don’t live in the ideal world. Or, as H.L. Mencken once said, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
If you see an obvious solution to an organizational problem, it may well be the best solution available. But don’t implement it until you have turned the problem over and looked at it from other angles.
For example, I once read an article that reported a very strong correlation between the number of liquor stores in a given community and the number of churches. You could conclude from this fact either that drinkers like to repent their sins or perhaps that religion drives people to drink.
But, either way, you would be wrong. The simple, but less-than-obvious explanation, was that both the number of churches and the number of liquor stores in a community vary directly with changes in a third variable: population. Bigger communities have both more churches and more liquor stores.
So, thank you Tom and Mike for reminding us to think before we decide we have the best solution to a problem.