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:
- Team Thrills
- Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience
is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
- Seven Ways to Get Nowhere
- Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making
no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
- Design Errors and Group Biases
- Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of
many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
- 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.
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking.
Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
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- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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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.