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:
- Ten Tactics for Tough Times: I
- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation
for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part I of a set of
approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of
errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept
- Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't 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 have too little
- Disproof of Concept
- Proof-of-concept studies of system designs usually try to devise solution options and discover the system's
operating constraints. But limitations can become clear too late. A different approach — disproof
of concept — can be a useful alternative.
See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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