Nearly every morning, if I'm in town, I do a two-and-a-half mile loop around Fresh Pond, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I usually go at about dawn. It's peaceful, quiet, and still, with plenty of opportunities to observe the kind of wildlife you find in urban parks. Today it was rabbits, cormorants, a hawk, and of course, some dogs walking their people.
Sometimes I vary my routine. For example, I might combine the trip with a trip to the automatic teller machine at a nearby bank. When I do that, I have to figure out where to leave the pond path for the climb through the woods over the multiple branching paths that lead up to the street to go to the bank. Until recently, I always emerged from the woods too far to the northeast. I never could find the right path through the woods.
Last week I had an idea. I reversed direction, going to the bank first, then down to the pond and around the pond path. That way, I could be sure to be on the right path through the woods. Well, it worked, of course. Duh.
Point is, the next time I want to get from the pond path to the automatic teller machine at the bank, I know how to do it, because I've been over the path before.
I call this forward backtracking. By beginning at the end, and ending at the beginning, you can figure out how to begin at the beginning and end at the end.
Strangely enough, forward backtracking applies far beyond getting from Fresh Pond to my bank. It's useful for solving the most complex problems, like adjusting a 20-month project schedule to meet an imposed deadline. A problem like that can be daunting, because it involves scheduling, resources, budgets, and — inevitably — politics.
The By beginning at the end,
and ending at the beginning,
you can figure out how
to begin at the beginning
and end at the endusual approach to such problems starts with creating lists of possible solution ideas. Then we apply them, one-by-one, or in combination, until we find something that works. If nothing works, we look for more ideas.
Forward backtracking provides some alternative approaches.
When looking for new ideas, we can apply forward backtracking by asking, "If we did have the solution, what would have been the last step that got us there?"
To discover people we might have forgotten to consult, we can ask, "If we did have a truly ingenious solution, who would have been most likely to have helped find it?"
Imaginary testing, too, can reveal attributes that help solutions: "If we had a candidate solution in hand, how would we know that it worked?"
Forward backtracking can help even beyond problem solving. For a new perspective on complex documents, try reviewing them back-to-front. And you need not worry — it won't spoil the ending. Top Next Issue
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- Solving the Problem of Solving Problems
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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