Problem solving — or sometimes even just stating the problem — usually entails discovery. After successful resolution, we can look back at our path, and we usually notice new techniques, new concepts and new perspectives. For difficult problems, the path includes several failed attempts, which perhaps we used to refine either the problem statement or our approach or both. Or we decide to solve a simpler problem first, and use that experience to re-examine the original problem. Or we decide that we can't solve the original problem, but we do address the parts that seem tractable.
These latter approaches are all elements of the incremental problem solving toolkit. Often, incremental problem solving produces useful results, but there is a risk that the results produced aren't optimal by any measure (see, for example, "Indicators of Lock-In: I," Point Lookout for March 23, 2011). And a string of promising results might lead not to the ultimate objective, but to a dead end.
That's why backtracking is so important in the incremental toolkit, but it can be difficult or impossible to use. Why?
Typically, increments produce useful capability, while they illuminate possible next steps. When customers use the capability so far delivered, more wants and needs become clear. All these lessons together help determine objectives for future increments. So it goes, iteration by iteration.
Although the solving helps illuminate the path, that path might or might not lead to the final objective. When it doesn't, we must backtrack, and therein lies risk. Here are some obstacles to backtracking in incremental problem solving.
- Once a particular approach is embedded in the consciousness, seeing new approaches can become difficult, even when we're looking for them.
- Sunk cost
- Whatever we've spent so far can sometimes prevent us from trying new approaches. We might lack the resources or time to rebuild what we've done, or we might lack the daring to ask for what we need.
- Seeing backtracking as failure
- Whether or not we have time or resources for backtracking, organizational culture might prohibit it. We push ahead because backtracking feels like failure, even when it's the only path to success.
- Short term cost bump
- Immediately after backtracking, the cost per unit of delivered capability jumps, because cost has risen, while capability hasn't. Capability might even decline. To some, that can seem more important than enabling future success.
- Backtracking costs real money
- Backtracking takes time and effort. Even when the cost is small,
the short-term return on
backtracking is negativeEven when the cost is small, short-term return is negative. We're paying to go backwards.
- Customer expectations
- Sometimes backtracking upsets customers, who have become accustomed to a steady stream of forward progress. It can be difficult to explain the need to redevelop something customers are already happy with.
With astonishing frequency, when we pause and ask, "How would we do this if we were starting over, knowing what we now know?" the answer is both novel and elegant. When we can find the resources and the will to backtrack enough to use what we've learned, our solutions are more durable, more effective and longer-lived. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Emergency Problem Solving
- In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies
depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects
do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress
might be underway?
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe
that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth.
Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
- Clueless on the Concept
- When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight
risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening"
is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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