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.
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 causesHere 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. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- In the Groove
- Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?"
Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Guidelines for Sharing "Resources"
- Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided
responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they
share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
- When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable.
One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
- Reactance and Decision-Making
- Some decisions are easy. Some are difficult. Some decisions that we think will be easy turn out to be
very, very difficult. What makes decisions difficult?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
- And on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
- Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.
Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- 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.