Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 45;   November 9, 2016: Solving the Problem of Solving Problems

Solving the Problem of Solving Problems

by

Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
Platypus swimming

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) swimming in Broken River, Queensland, Australia, 2004. A mammal that lays eggs, the platypus might seem to some to be an inelegant design. Yet, it has existed in its current form for a period of time comparable to the line of modern humans. While elegance might be an important attribute of any problem solution, workability is more important for most problems. Photo (cc) Peter Scheunis

Usually, when solving problems, generating candidate solutions isn't difficult. What is difficult is finding hidden ideas, or sorting through ideas to isolate the most promising ones. Here's a little catalog of ideas for sorting ideas.

Examine boring ideas
Look for ideas that seem workable but boring. Their dreary nature can lead to a bias against them. Few people want to work on them, and securing resources for them might be difficult because they're so unexciting. But workability is what counts. Set your own bias aside, and seek ways to persuade others to do the same.
Examine unoriginal ideas
Lack of originality is another source of bias against ideas. Look for an idea that someone has already tried. If it proved unworkable, ask why. If those reasons are still in place, can you remove them or skirt them somehow?
Examine inelegant ideas
Because inelegance can be more repulsive than workability can be attractive, we often reject inelegant but workable ideas. To recruit supporters, or to secure resources, emphasize that success is a form of beauty.
Examine politically encumbered ideas
Some Some perfectly workable ideas
are rejected, or regarded as
unworkable, when they
carry political baggage
perfectly workable ideas are rejected, or regarded as unworkable, when they carry political baggage. Perhaps they offend someone powerful, or they don't conform to the preferences of another powerful person. In these cases, the problem to be solved is political in nature. Focus not on the original problem, but instead on the politics.
Examine expensive ideas
Yet another source of bias against ideas is their apparent cost, or their apparent need for skills and knowledge that are in short supply. In these cases, work on resolving the resource issues. What can you do to reduce costs? How can you be clever about finding people who can do the job?
Examine crazy ideas
Ideas with reputations for being obviously crazy sometimes inherit their reputations from the people who originated them, rather than by earning their reputations by being truly crazy. Look carefully at the idea itself, setting aside what you know about its originator. Is the idea itself truly crazy?
Examine past successes
When you finally solved a problem, what was the critical element that led to a solution? By examining your history, you might find a pattern among those critical elements. Patterns can arise from weakness in problem solving skills, or unfamiliarity with the problem domain, or the culture in which you work. If you can identify the pattern, you can use it to guide a search for solutions to the current problem.

Finally, deal with your own biases by intentionally searching for ideas you regard as crazy. This stance helps to relax the constraints that conceal solutions. When you find an intriguingly crazy solution, ask, "What makes it crazy?" Can you adjust it so that its craziness is no longer obvious? Is there anything about it that could be useful? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrencqVYGBFvxJwRaQOiner@ChacIwtwaZtWTeiuBDQLoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

Part of one of the tunnel boring machines used to build the tunnel under the English ChannelForward Backtracking
The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, CaliforniaClearing Conflict Fog
At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
A globe puzzleVirtual Brainstorming: I
When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic. Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsTackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGtXfFAPuudUNzBVAner@ChacPcLjtZBCLNMIKfnRoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.