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
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Poverty of Choice by Choice
- Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life
can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions,
and how can we tell when we're doing it?
- Workplace Barn Raisings
- Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together
from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely
disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe
that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth.
Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
- 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 December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on 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.
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