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

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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. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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