Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 26;   June 28, 2017: Tackling Hard Problems: I

# Tackling Hard Problems: I

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.

Some problems have no evident solutions. We set them aside for now and move on to something else where we believe we can make progress, saying, "We can come back to that later, or maybe there's another way altogether." I collected a number of suggestions for difficult problems years ago, but there's one method I use that somehow escaped that catalog. I call it "Right-To-Left Thinking."

Because lines of text in my native language, English, are written left-to-right, and because the lines are usually arranged top-down, I tend to make diagrams with a left-to-right/top-down general direction of flow. For me, then, right-to-left is a reverse of my normal pattern. That might be why it helps me find novel solutions, because it compels me to look at things differently. If your primary written language flows in some other direction, you'll want to make appropriate adjustments to this method to get the same effect.

To show how it works for me, I'll apply it to a really difficult problem: establishing a Mars colony. I have no expertise in that area, so it's unlikely that any conclusions I develop here will be useful for the Mars colony problem. What follows is just an illustration of Right-To-Left Thinking.

Begin with the objective
Begin by imagining that we've reached the objective already, and write down a representation of the objective on the ?right-hand? edge of a big sheet of paper (or whatever surface you're using), in words or sketches. Try to capture some of the properties of the objective, even if we don't yet know how to reach it, focusing on some of the most difficult parts of the problem.
For the Mars Colony, three of the more difficult problems are oxygen supply, water supply, and protection from radiation. They're difficult because they probably involve large masses of material, and transporting those masses from Earth is impractical.
Develop some pre-objectives
With the objective in mind,Begin by imagining that we've
ask, "How would we have solved it?"
ask, "If we could reach the objective, what would we have accomplished or obtained to get there?" It might include material things, or concepts or knowedge we now lack. These items are our pre-objectives. Write them all down just to the ?left? of where we wrote the properties of the objective. (That's why I call this method "Right-To-Left Thinking")
For the Mars Colony, if we can't send water and oxygen from Earth, we'll have to find them or produce them on Mars. We do know that subsurface ice is present. We can break down that water to harvest oxygen. Martian soil can provide radiation shielding, either as a layer on top of colonial structures, or by excavating to build structures under the surface. Caves or lava tubes are also possibilities.

Next time, we'll continue developing pre-objectives, and turn our attention to the other edge of the paper where we begin working on the starting point of the problem solution.  Next in this series

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## Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

Bonuses
How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
New Ideas: Generation
When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Focus on the Question
When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
Virtual Brainstorming: II
When virtual teams must brainstorm, they try to do so virtually. But brainstorming isn't just another meeting. There's a real risk that virtual brainstorms might produce inadequate results. Here's Part II of some suggestions for reducing the risk.
Virtual Teams Need Generous Travel Budgets
Although virtual team members who happen to be co-located do meet from time to time, meetings of people who reside at different sites are often severely restricted by tight or non-existent travel budgets. Such restrictions, intended to save money, can contribute to expensive delays and errors.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

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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.