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:
- Help for Asking for Help
- When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How
we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
- Take Charge of Your Learning
- Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you
can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
- Forward 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.
- Problem-Solving Preferences
- When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to
emphasize the goal or objective, while others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an
asset and annoyance.
- Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I
- Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures
can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing
costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
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