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:
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- Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why
didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
- Organizing a Barn Raising
- Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning.
Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
- The Tyranny of Singular Nouns
- When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept,
such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all
solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
- Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure
of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can
determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects.
- Why Meetings Go Down Rabbit Holes
- When a meeting goes "down the rabbit hole," it has swerved from the planned topic to detail-purgatory,
problem-solving-hell, irrelevance, or worse. All participants, not only the Chair, contribute to the
problem. Why does this happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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