It's late summer in the Gatineau Valley in Quebec. I'm with five friends, and we're on our way to the Cabonga Reservoir to fish. In the morning after an overnight stop in the forest of a provincial park, a light rain is falling. At this time of year in Quebec, any rain is cold and uncomfortable, so we're trying to fix flapjacks for breakfast. We're failing.
It has been a wet month, and we haven't found any dry wood. Despite many attempts, we can manage only a smoky little fire that's nowhere near hot enough for flapjacks.
We hear a vehicle crunching along the gravel road approaching our campsite, and soon a government pickup truck pulls up and stops in the empty campsite across from us. Three men hop out and one waves hello, calling to us in French. We wave back. Smiling, he comes over for a visit. He quickly figures out that we don't understand his French, and just as quickly, he figures out that we don't know what we're doing.
He points to our hatchet lying on a stone and says, "OK?" One of us replies, "Oui." He speaks about as much English as we do French.
With the hatchet, he begins splintering a large log lying beside our dysfunctional fire. He piles the splinters onto the fire, and they immediately explode into flame. He exclaims, "Bois sec! Bois sec!"
Making small adjustments
to what you're already
doing is often the answerOne of us remembers enough French to translate: "Dry wood! Dry wood!" We thank him and in mime we offer him breakfast, but he waves us off, and goes back across the road to rejoin his work mates.
Soon we're full of coffee and flapjacks.
When things aren't working, how do you find an approach that does work? Making small adjustments to what you're already doing is often the answer. But even when the adjustments do look small in retrospect, discovering them in the moment can require great imagination and insight. Here are some tips for finding small adjustments that have big impact.
- Assume that whatever you have to change will be small
- You're more likely to find an ingenious small adjustment if you're actually looking for one.
- Rewrite the problem description
- Write down a description of the problem. Then rewrite it so that it uses none of the same words, except prepositions, articles and the various forms of is.
- Get fresh eyes
- Find some people who haven't been working on the current approach. They're more likely to ask the right questions. Brief them and let them question everything.
- Explain it to some kids
- Children not only have fresh eyes, they have fresh brains. They can understand way more than you might think. To engage them, tell them you're stuck and ask for their help.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges
do they face, and what can we do about them?
- Managing Non-Content Risks: I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated
with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less
attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets
- Projects as Proxy Targets: II
- Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins,
some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
- False Summits: II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end.
The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is
in project work.
- Some Risks of Short-Term Fixes
- When we encounter a problem at work, we must choose between short-term fixes (also known as workarounds)
and long-term solutions. Often we choose workarounds without appreciating the risks we're accepting
— until too late.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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