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August 6, 2003 Volume 3, Issue 32
 
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Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"

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Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.

Glen had heard enough. "So what you're saying is that you need another three weeks to finish the requirements, and work on the specifications would begin three weeks after that, right?"

Finger Puzzles

A finger puzzle. Photo courtesy Celebrate the Child.

A little disturbed by Glen's manner, Bernice held her ground. "Right. We can shorten the requirements process, but for every day we cut, we should tack on about a month to the schedule overall."

Glen was exasperated. "Well, I don't believe your 20-to-1 ratio. There must be some way to get started on something while the requirements process finishes."

Glen and Bernice are locked in a common struggle — between "getting started on real work" and "thinking about it some more." How they resolve this can determine whether the project is a success or a money pit — or somewhere in between.

Sometimes the way out
of a trap is counterintuitive
Typical factions in such struggles are "technical folks" advocating thought and planning, and "business folks" advocating "action." When their influence is balanced, the organization makes fairly good decisions. When one dominates, problems arise.

Both can learn from the finger puzzle.

A finger puzzle is a braided straw tube about 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) long, and about a half-inch (2 cm) in diameter. You put one finger into each end, and when you pull your fingers apart to remove them, the tube stretches, tightening its grip. Try as you might, you can't break free.

To free yourself, you have to do something counterintuitive — you push your fingers together, shortening the tube, and increasing its diameter. Then, holding the tube with your thumbs, you can easily extract your fingers.

Life is full of Finger Puzzles — situations that call for action that's almost exactly the opposite of what our "common sense" tells us to do.

The Requirements phase of a complex project is like a Finger Puzzle. The business folks want "progress" to start, but ironically, the project will finish sooner if we wait until the requirements are clear. During the requirements phase, the way to speed things up is to wait.

Action is a Finger Puzzle, too. The technical folks want to get the design right before going "public" with customers, but, ironically, we get things right faster when we have customer input. We think more clearly when we take action to get more information.

Even the debate between these two factions — "just do it" vs. "think about it some more" — can be a finger puzzle. While the antagonists contend, they give each other energy to continue the debate. Resisting one's opponent in debate, ironically, extends the debate. We reach agreement faster by exploring each other's positions, rather than asserting our own.

Get a finger puzzle. Tack it on your wall. It will remind you to question your common sense. Go to top Top  Next issue: Beyond WIIFM  Next Issue
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