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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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Clueless on the Concept
- When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight
risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening"
is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: I
- When groups of decision makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts
or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
- How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we
see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
- Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution,
and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
- Start Anywhere
- Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem
is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect
of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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