People have preferences. We have preferences about so many different things that the number of different combinations is enormous. Everyone is unique. We even have preferences about the ways we try to solve problems. One classification of problem-solving preferences is the relative interest we have in focusing on objectives versus obstacles.
To focus on objectives is to keep foremost in mind what we're trying to achieve by solving the problem. To focus on obstacles is to look first at the difficulties we face when we try to implement candidate solutions.
When we approach problem solving, few of us are aware of whether we prefer to focus on objectives or obstacles. And few of us make conscious choices of focus during the solution process.
Because solving problems successfully requires balanced attention to both objectives and obstacles, choosing the right focus at the right stage of problem solving can dramatically enhance problem solving effectiveness. Here are some observations that can help you make wise choices.
- Objective orientation
- A focus on objectives helps us find the way to the goal when we must make the detours needed to evade or eliminate obstacles. Keeping objectives in mind can be inspiring when attaining them seems out of reach, or when we encounter obstacles wherever we turn.
- The objective orientation has a dark side, too. It can lead to an obsession with ideas that seem promising, but which have little practical value. And it can lead us to reject out of hand any candidate solution that requires that we temporarily deviate from the direct path to our goal. Rigid adherence to the objective orientation can actually prevent us from finding ways around obstacles.
- Obstacle Orientation
- A focus on obstacles helps us find impediments Relying mostly on one approach —
either objectives or obstacles — to
the exclusion of the other is a
path to failureearly in the search for solutions. This enables wise allocation of resources, which helps us rank possible solutions according to likelihood of success. And when we notice a common theme among some of the obstacles we find early in the search, we can apply that insight to the task of generating more promising candidate solutions.
- The obstacle orientation has a dark side, too. A focus on obstacles can be dispiriting, because we must search for reasons why candidate solutions don't work. Sometimes we must consider the question, "Can any solution at all ever work?" And sometimes we can become so lost in addressing obstacles that we lose sight of the objective.
Relying mostly on one approach to the exclusion of the other is a path to failure. Both orientations — objectives and obstacles — are needed at various times and in different situations. And often we can't tell which approach we need at any given moment. An appreciation for the advantages and risks associated with each perspective can lead to acceptance of the approaches and contributions of people whose preferences differ from our own. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed
when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's
one way to get a clue.
- Intentionally Unintentional Learning
- Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open
to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have
far greater impact.
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
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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