Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 36;   September 6, 2006: The Solving Lamp Is Lit

The Solving Lamp Is Lit

by

We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.

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.

Tenacious under full sail

Tenacious under full sail. Photo courtesy Jubilee Sailing Trust, which "promotes the integration of able-bodied and physically disabled people through tall ship sailing adventures."

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 causes
Here 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Get a Promotion in Line  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? rbrenyrQlGPCyABtKusvzner@ChacEHdfoUJOjdkjwTbjoCanyon.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 Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Detour SignHow We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
Uphill trekSelling Uphill: Before and After
Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading decision-makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way for success now and in the future?
An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: II
Ever had one of those forehead-slapping moments when someone explained something, or you suddenly realized something? They usually involve some idea or insight that would have saved you much pain, trouble, and heartache, if only you had known.
Suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River between Manhattan and BrooklynDealing with Negative Progress
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007 Toyota Lexus ES350Indicators of Lock-In: II
When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A serene mountain lakeComing January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.
Capturing ideas in a brainstormAnd on February 7: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: II
Brainstorming sessions produce output of notoriously variable quality. Understanding what compromises quality can help elevate it. Here's Part II of a set of nine phenomena that can limit the quality of contributions to brainstorming sessions. Available here and by RSS on February 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvQmkQxafloefUshUner@ChacCgARAdYshPqQYhPpoCanyon.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. Here's a date for 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.