Problem solving — or sometimes even just stating the problem — usually entails discovery. After successful resolution, we can look back at our path, and we usually notice new techniques, new concepts and new perspectives. For difficult problems, the path includes several failed attempts, which perhaps we used to refine either the problem statement or our approach or both. Or we decide to solve a simpler problem first, and use that experience to re-examine the original problem. Or we decide that we can't solve the original problem, but we do address the parts that seem tractable.
These latter approaches are all elements of the incremental problem solving toolkit. Often, incremental problem solving produces useful results, but there is a risk that the results produced aren't optimal by any measure (see, for example, "Indicators of Lock-In: I," Point Lookout for March 23, 2011). And a string of promising results might lead not to the ultimate objective, but to a dead end.
That's why backtracking is so important in the incremental toolkit, but it can be difficult or impossible to use. Why?
Typically, increments produce useful capability, while they illuminate possible next steps. When customers use the capability so far delivered, more wants and needs become clear. All these lessons together help determine objectives for future increments. So it goes, iteration by iteration.
Although the solving helps illuminate the path, that path might or might not lead to the final objective. When it doesn't, we must backtrack, and therein lies risk. Here are some obstacles to backtracking in incremental problem solving.
- Once a particular approach is embedded in the consciousness, seeing new approaches can become difficult, even when we're looking for them.
- Sunk cost
- Whatever we've spent so far can sometimes prevent us from trying new approaches. We might lack the resources or time to rebuild what we've done, or we might lack the daring to ask for what we need.
- Seeing backtracking as failure
- Whether or not we have time or resources for backtracking, organizational culture might prohibit it. We push ahead because backtracking feels like failure, even when it's the only path to success.
- Short term cost bump
- Immediately after backtracking, the cost per unit of delivered capability jumps, because cost has risen, while capability hasn't. Capability might even decline. To some, that can seem more important than enabling future success.
- Backtracking costs real money
- Backtracking takes time and effort. Even when the cost is small,
the short-term return on
backtracking is negativeEven when the cost is small, short-term return is negative. We're paying to go backwards.
- Customer expectations
- Sometimes backtracking upsets customers, who have become accustomed to a steady stream of forward progress. It can be difficult to explain the need to redevelop something customers are already happy with.
With astonishing frequency, when we pause and ask, "How would we do this if we were starting over, knowing what we now know?" the answer is both novel and elegant. When we can find the resources and the will to backtrack enough to use what we've learned, our solutions are more durable, more effective and longer-lived. 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? rbrenGddUJvriSzsMqxJqner@ChacdaKQXuhXNnCbUoQPoCanyon.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 Problem Solving and Creativity:
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex
politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes
hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
- 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: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They
sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge
new ideas more effectively?
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our
lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
- Problem Displacement and Technical Debt
- The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another.
It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 24: Big, Complicated Problems
- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
- And on May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensaaToVbiGpzDdYQgner@ChacMqtvkgMDILLApsDcoCanyon.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, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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 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.