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
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. In part, it's rare because we usually strive only for adequacy, not for greatness. We do this because we don't fully appreciate the returns on greatness. Not only does it feel good to be part of great team — it pays off. Check out my Great Teams Workshop to lead your team onto the path toward greatness. More info
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
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- At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try
to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- New Ideas: Generation
- When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas,
they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common.
Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog.
- Call in the Right Expert
- When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts.
That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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