Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 26;   June 28, 2017: Tackling Hard Problems: I

# Tackling Hard Problems: I

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.

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
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 knowedge 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

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## Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

What Haven't I Told You?
When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Group Dynamics
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II
Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming September 25: Planning Disappointments
When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.
And on October 2: Start Anywhere
Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore. Available here and by RSS on October 2.

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On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

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