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 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 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?
- 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 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.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: II
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions
of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool
called the Johari window.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: 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 of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.