It's early afternoon on a glassy tropical ocean in 1798. You're a "jack tar" — an ordinary seaman on an English sailing vessel. You're on the watch, with little to do, because the sails are already set and the ship is nearly becalmed under a hot equatorial sun. Along with most of the rest of the watch, you're splicing sheets in the merciful shade of the mainsail.
Every minute or so, one of you looks over his shoulder at the smoking lamp. It's still out, but you expect the mate to order it lit at any moment. When that happens, you can light your pipe.
Lighting the smoking lamp told sailors they could smoke. Smoking was generally dangerous on the deck of an eighteenth century vessel, because just about everything on board was flammable, and the tar they used to caulk seams was everywhere. Even an ember from a pipe could set it alight. Smoking was permitted only when the wind was light and favorable.
In problem-solving organizations, we don't worry much about fire, but the tendency to jump into "solution mode" prematurely is just as dangerous, because most problems have multiple interacting causes.
For instance, if a solution addresses one of the causes, and it fails, we might think that our solution didn't work, when actually it was necessary, but not sufficient. And some causes are active only when other causes are inactive. The bad behavior we observe when our trial solution is in effect might actually be due to a different failure mechanism.
Even when we're just exploring a problem, we're easily deflected into solving it, which makes it difficult to focus on understanding rather than solving. One technique that helps is to use a "solving lamp," analogous to the sailor's smoking lamp.
Get a Lava Lamp, or a flashlight that you can stand on end. Bring it to any meeting that you think might be vulnerable to falling into solution mode prematurely. Explain that during the parts of the meeting when the solving lamp is lit, we're looking for solutions, and when the solving lamp is out, we're doing something else.
The tendency to jump into
"solution mode" prematurely
is dangerous because
most problems have
multiple interacting causesHere are some of the advantages of solving only when the solving lamp is lit:
- It's easier to solve problems that you actually understand
- Some people will find it easier to wait until everyone understands the problem better
- Those who prefer exploring the problem before solving it are on a more equal footing with those who prefer moving to solution earlier
- Solutions are more likely to encompass the right combination of interacting causes
If you're an organizational leader considering how to equip all conference rooms with solving lamps, but you don't know where to find the budget for it, then you have a problem. The solving lamp is lit. Top Next Issue
Are 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenokuhFEkdWSZDoDipner@ChacNeEMSlbWIwZZkjMhoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Astonishing Successes
- When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes
self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
- Logically Illogical
- Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets
long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure.
Here are just a few.
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our
lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
- Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects
- The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators
of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior
has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
- Ethical Debate at Work: II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others,
but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates
toward wise outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenFxcwObYEhUYiOGmKner@ChacpDhOaRzAtxLXWfFvoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.