The “Single Flaw” Fallacy

A mistake I’ve made too often, is falling into “single flaw” thinking. This is where you spend time trying to find the single cause for your lack of success in some complex problem.

For example, in the first couple years of trying to start a business, I was struggling to make an income. In that frustration, it was very tempting to look for a single flaw. At first it was traffic, then when that didn’t solve my problems, I thought it was subscribers, then positioning or email. Always looking for the solitary cause underlying my frustrations.

The mistake here is that in a complex problem, there is very rarely a single obvious flaw contributing to a lack of success. Instead, it’s usually a bunch of little flaws, which seem minor in isolation, but combine to make success harder.

Complex Problems, Multiple Flaws

For simple problems, looking for a single flaw is usually enough. These are the kinds of problems we’re trained on in school.

If you can’t solve an algebra question, it usually means you’re lacking one or two key understandings to get the solution. We’ve been trained on problems like this, learning to isolate the key mistake to try to fix it.

Complex problems don’t usually work this way. Consider a different example, dating. Here you could make a list of all the factors that contribute to your success in finding a partner:

  • Meeting new people
  • Conversation skills
  • Fashion and appearance
  • Being funny
  • Extroversion
  • Finding people with more common interests
  • Confidence
  • Situational experience

That’s just for starters. Dating may not be complex in the hard-to-understand variety we reserve for physics equations, but it is complicated in the sheer number of different factors that contribute to your success.

If you’re having difficulty meeting someone, therefore, it’s unlikely that there’s a single flaw which underlies your lack of success. If there are 20 success factors, it’s incredibly unlikely that 19 of them are perfect and the 20th is responsible for sabotaging your success.

Yet most people don’t reason this way. I’ve heard tons of guys complain that “being too nice” is their problem. Besides being ridiculous, it’s the exact single-flaw thinking that plagues most people facing complex problems.

A more likely cause of failure is small flaws in several or more factors compounding. If there are 10 success factors in dating, which multiply together to give your results, then being just 10% better in each of them would result in 250% more success.

The same was true with my business. The temptation was to look for a single cause, but the truth was there were dozens of minor flaws, each contributing to my overall lackluster results.

Big Results Through Little Improvements

Part of the cause of single-flaw thinking, is that people tend to view success linearly. If getting $100 per month takes effort, then getting $10,000 per month must require 100x the effort or skill.

This can be especially frustrating if you’re in the low end of those disproportionate results. You see how little results you’re getting for such hard work, and it’s hard to stay motivated knowing how much work is required ahead.

But when success factors compound, little improvements spread over a larger area can result in big eventual wins. If the guys complaining about being “too nice” made a plan to improve one success factor each month for a year, they might never fix a “single flaw” but still dramatically increase their results.

When my business finally tipped towards providing a livable income, it wasn’t the last change I made that did it. It was the accumulation of a bunch of steady improvements which magnified with time.

How to Solve Complex Problems

The alternative to single-flaw thinking is to optimize. That is, to list out dozens of areas which are compounding to success, and work on making many improvements to each of them. Rarely will a single fix be sufficient to cause a tipping point, but that doesn’t matter if you aren’t looking for the single flaw to solve.

Optimizations aren’t always little changes. It might take a lot of work to make even a small improvement in just one success factor. However, if you avoid single-flaw mentality, you won’t get discouraged when a single fix doesn’t immediately improve your results.

  • Doug Snider

    Hi Scott!

    Your blog regarding the single flaw fallacy made me think about problems in a whole new way. Thanks for raising my level of awareness.

    Regards – Doug

  • Miguel Guzmán

    /me likes.

    Sometimes for me the opposite is also true. I have found out that in some specific areas where I have some good solid experiencie, if I find a sticking point and blast through it I can greatly improve my results, “the difference that makes a difference”.

    But for the majority of areas, you usually have a bunch of interrelated skills each one progressing in a logarithmic way (iow “diminishing returns”), so what I try to do is identifying which sub-areas are more open for improvement and work at them thoroughly until they improve and some other area becomes the drag and gets the spotlight for improving, and so on.

    I also have found out that the first case (one single sticking point) is usually a particular instance of the second one, where I just neglected one specific point, but yes, the instance where N=1 only happens in areas where I have done a great deal of work beforehand and have accumulated a ton of experience. For me these cases are specially frustrating because you get results, but not the kind of results you’d like to have, and it’s kinda difficult to pinpoint the one thing that’s missing. Has happened to me a couple of times with dating and primal dieting, and isolating and overcoming the single limiting factor yielded a huge improvement in results.

    But as you say, this is the exception. Usually “This stuff is complex. You need more experience overall” is right.

    Very interesting article Scott!

  • Laurence Mason

    A very inspiring post, I agree very much with your points on solving lots of small problems.

    I would say that in addition to just solving problems, issues should be continually reviewed and updated to keep up to date with developments. Trying new methods of traffic generation and exploring other niches are examples.

    Miguel hints on the need for more experience to improve lots of small problems. He’s really got something there. Your experience Scott in blogging is what enables you to spot the need for subtle optimisations to your business here and there. That’s probably another reason why sticking at something for a long period of time helps you improve – it’s the unteachable things that are the most important to learn.

  • Scott Young


    After writing I realize I should have written the article differently. My point is never that a single flaw (or sticking point, as you say) holds you back, but that this isn’t always the case, or even usually the case.

    I see the frustration when looking around at all the aspects of a business or complex problem, you feel adequate in all of them (there are no obvious sticking points) and yet, you can’t understand your lack of results. The idea of multiple flaws compounding suggests a solution.


  • Andrew

    Very good post! What you are starting to get at has been discussed by a number of management researchers and is especially important in the budding field of “complexity science”. The problems you are talking about that don’t really have a single point are known as “complex” problems.

    Simple problems are generally easy to solve or have a simple defined pattern to solve. An example would be baking cookies or solving a math equation.

    Complicated problems are harder to solve because they require a lot more information but once you have that information you can solve them. An example would be building a car or launching a rocket into space.

    Complex problems are generally unsolvable because you can’t accurately acquire the information needed to solve the problem fully. An example would be how to solve the problem of world hunger or even the best way to raise a child. There are so many variables interacting and then changing other variables its nearly impossible get the right information or control the right variables. This is where complexity science comes in to help.

    Recommend you check out:

  • Dr. Pete

    I think this is dead on. I think you see it in the history of therapy. Old-school therapy wanted to drill your whole life down to one big things (a trauma or your mom), but we’ve begun to realize that – at least for most of us – our problems are the culmination of 100s or 1000s of events, gradually forming thought patterns and spirals (vicious and virtuous).

    It can be comforting to want to find your single flaw, because that means maybe you can fix everything in one fell swoop (although that’s rarely true even for people who have had one terrible thing happen t0 them). The other way to look at it, though, is that if you have 100s of tiny problems, then 100s of tiny solutions could turn your life around. Change one thing a week, and you’ll undo 100 problems in 2 years.

  • Adam Isom

    Of course, factors in complex problems are usually not independent of each other, and one may affect others most, kind of like how pulling certain sticks in the child game Ker Plunk are more likely to bring down the balls, because they underlie other sticks most.

    Thank you for this, and for the specificity in the example, the distinct factors that go into dating success.

  • Dave

    Have you ever installed a cylinder head? Or even change a tire for that matter. The proper procedure is to tighten each bolt or nut in a star pattern, a little bit at a time; you can’t tighten any one bolt all the way down or else it may not align or seal properly or may load one fastener too much. (I’m almost certain that this procedure is used elsewhere but cars are what I know.)

    I’ve used this analogy for addressing life areas in a balanced manner when it comes to personal development, but I now also see how this could be scaled down to address factors within a complex problem.

    Interesting read, in a problem I currently face, I’ve recognized that there are many things within it that I need to address, but I’ve been debate which part I should tackle first. Now I realize I just need to tie one down because the rest will be waiting when I’m done.

  • Sumiyyah


    Wow that’s so true, I never thought about the 10% better in several categories equaling the high results but it makes sense. If you think about big corporations and businesses, they’re not just putting all their revenue towards fixing 1 problem which they see as the only thing standing between them and higher success. Rather they focus on many problems at the same time. Also, this reminds me of investing money. You don’t want to put all your money in one stock or share but rather spreading it out would yield greater results.

    Thanks for the Article! Loved it.


  • Mike O’Horo

    The most difficult variables to resolve when trying to address complex problems are the people variables. Collaboration, whether for decision-making or implementation, is so difficult because each person on the team is the product of thousands of variables, about most of which they’re not aware. What you have is a moving target comprised of thousands of moving targets.

    This best illustrated by group decision processes. When groups try to decide something, they fail so often because they don’t realize that decision-making is hard; they assume that, because everyone wants to make a decision, they will.

    Groups, particularly those comprised primarily of impatient Americans (of which I’m one) oriented to “just do it,” resist the effort it takes to understand the problem underlying the decision. They just want to get to solving it. We love to explore solution options; that feels like we’re doing something.

    A group decision requires three things:
    — willing stakeholders
    — the data to inform the decision
    — a decision process.

    The third element is almost always lacking. The result is that the stakeholders grind away at the wrong data (solution options) without progress, which exhausts the stakeholders’ willingness to continue. Into such a void steps a loud voice, either an internal one or an external one such as a consultant. That person imposes a solution on the now-unwilling stakeholders, who acquiesce out of sheer frustration and fatigue.

    Such imposed solutions always fail, in part because they’re poorly informed, but mostly because the acquiescence doesn’t equal commitment. The stakeholders undermine the solution they didn’t actually endorse, may not understand, and don’t know if it aligns with their self-interest. (Studies over the past 30 years have consistently shown that about 70% of corporate IT projects fail for “stakeholder alignment” reasons.)

    There is no single fallacy in group decision-making. However, there are reliable processes by which a skilled facilitator can guide stakeholders to a shared, sustainable decision of which each feels ownership.

  • Darren

    You’re absolutely right that single-flaw thinking is irrational as a point of reference for complex problems. Therefore we should recognize that there is often no magic single solution to our woes. It is the sum of several factors that makes up the whole of a complex problem, be that fitness, business, finances, relationships or otherwise. We certainly need to remember the holistic elements of problem solving, and take small actionable steps towards overcoming them.

    However, I think there is a bigger issue at hand, and that is, viewing outcomes as real problems under your control in the first place. ‘Being Too Nice,’ is an outcome of several other behaviors or habits, like not sticking up for yourself when you should, compromising too much, not earning respect by giving it, being too clingy/needy of a person, and so-on.

    Take for example, what you have written:

    Meeting new people
    Conversation skills
    Fashion and appearance
    Being funny
    Finding people with more common interests
    Situational experience

    I would say that these are outcomes/results (or at least very broad generalizations), not skills, habits or behaviors (which I’ll now refer to as controllable factors) within your control that you can actually change now.

    I think there should be a process of elimination, in determining the controllable factors that are contributing the most damage. I don’t mean previous experiences that may have led you to where you are, or the outcomes you may have previously faced, you will need to reframe that with time.

    I mean that there are degrees with which, these controllable factors, reflect your progress within a problem. You will get the best results by focusing on the controllable factors, one at a time, that contribute the most to solving your problem.

    I would personally recommend as a coach or mentor, because you need to identify and address the current controllable factors that are most likely leading you to the negative outcome. It cannot be as vague as ‘I’m too nice’ or ‘not enough traffic/subscribers/positioning/email,’ because again, those are outcomes of controllable and actionable factors, not controllable factors themselves.

    If the objective is to ‘be more funny,’ then first you need to define what ‘being funny’ actually means to you, because it’s too vague as a starting position. Why do you need to be funny? Then you need to figure out, how, you will achieve the desired outcome (again highly recommend a coach or mentor but that’s just me…). And finally focus on what to do, by creating an actionable step-by-step plan, that puts you in a position through skill acquisition, behavior modification or changes in habits, that will make you funny, or more extroverted, which could ultimately lead to meeting more people with common interests.

    I believe that’s the real way to see the cascade effect you are referring to with small actionable steps, I’m just viewing it from a different angle. The problem is never that you’re too nice, or that you don’t have enough of something outside of your control, it’s that you didn’t take the necessary small steps towards changing that which is under your control through some kind of process or journey.

    There are, in fact, one, or a few controllable factors that contribute more heavily to your lack of success than the 17 others, and you may need to break those factors down even further and rebuild them several times to effectively solve the problem and achieve the success you are looking for.

    I believe the better plan of action for solving a complex problem is to forget about outcomes contributing to your problem outside of your control and focus on actionable and controllable factors. People tend to focus so much on results, they forget that results are an outcome of the right sequential steps of good skills, behaviors, or habits development.

    Anyways, that’s the coach in me talking, my two cents, thank you for making me think!

  • Matt

    Hi Scott,

    That was thought-provoking 🙂

    I agree that there can be multiple factors, multiple causes. At the same time, there is usually a hierarchy of cause and effect linking those causes together. And you can find a “root cause”, or only a few root causes who are at the source of all symptoms / consequences.

    Have you read “It’s Not Luck” by Eliyahu Goldratt? What I’m referring to is the thinking processes that he introduced, such as the CRT (Current Reality Tree) to uncover root cause(s) for problems in a business or production chain context. Those processes can well be applied to all areas of life.