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? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
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:
- The Mind Reading Trap
- When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that
we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can
reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else,
that's a recipe for trouble.
- 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?
- We Are All People
- When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that
we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
- How to Avoid Getting What You Want
- Why would you want to know how to avoid getting what you want? Well, suppose you had perfected ways
of avoiding getting what you want, but you weren't aware that you were doing it. This one's for you.
- Understanding Delegation
- It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their
subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate.
It breeds micromanagers.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info