Some problems have no evident solutions. We set them aside for now and move on to something else where we believe we can make progress, saying, "We can come back to that later, or maybe there's another way altogether." I collected a number of suggestions for difficult problems years ago, but there's one method I use that somehow escaped that catalog. I call it "Right-To-Left Thinking."
Because lines of text in my native language, English, are written left-to-right, and because the lines are usually arranged top-down, I tend to make diagrams with a left-to-right/top-down general direction of flow. For me, then, right-to-left is a reverse of my normal pattern. That might be why it helps me find novel solutions, because it compels me to look at things differently. If your primary written language flows in some other direction, you'll want to make appropriate adjustments to this method to get the same effect.
To show how it works for me, I'll apply it to a really difficult problem: establishing a Mars colony. I have no expertise in that area, so it's unlikely that any conclusions I develop here will be useful for the Mars colony problem. What follows is just an illustration of Right-To-Left Thinking.
- Begin with the objective
- Begin by imagining that we've reached the objective already, and write down a representation of the objective on the "right-hand" edge of a big sheet of paper (or whatever surface you're using), in words or sketches. Try to capture some of the properties of the objective — even if we don't yet know how to reach it — focusing on some of the most difficult parts of the problem.
- For the Mars Colony, three of the more difficult problems are oxygen supply, water supply, and protection from radiation. They're difficult because they probably involve large masses of material, and transporting those masses from Earth is impractical.
- Develop some pre-objectives
- With the objective in mind,Begin by imagining that we've
reached the objective already, and
ask, "How would we have solved it?" ask, "If we could reach the objective, what would we have accomplished or obtained to get there?" It might include material things, or concepts or knowledge we now lack. These items are our pre-objectives. Write them all down just to the "left" of where we wrote the properties of the objective. (That's why I call this method "Right-To-Left Thinking")
- For the Mars Colony, if we can't send water and oxygen from Earth, we'll have to find them or produce them on Mars. We do know that subsurface ice is present. We can break down that water to harvest oxygen. Martian soil can provide radiation shielding, either as a layer on top of colonial structures, or by excavating to build structures under the surface. Caves or lava tubes are also possibilities.
Next time, we'll continue developing pre-objectives, and turn our attention to the other edge of the paper where we begin working on the starting point of the problem solution. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Dealing with Deadlock
- At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try
to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Brainstorming and Speedstorming: I
- Recent research suggests that brainstorming might not be as effective as we would like to believe it
is. An alternative, speedstorming, might have some advantages for some teams solving some problems.
- Newtonian Blind Alleys: I
- When we decide how to allocate organizational resources, we make assumptions about how the world works.
Often outside our awareness, the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton influences our assumptions. And sometimes
they lead us into blind alleys. Universality is one example.
- What Are the Chances?
- When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability
of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume
that events are independent when they are not.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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