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:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- 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.
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work,
our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
- Virtual Brainstorming: I
- When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic.
Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project.
Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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