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

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 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.

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This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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## Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

On Beginnings
A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Focus on the Question
When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I
Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
Guidelines for Curmudgeon Teams
The curmudgeon team is a subgroup of a larger team. Their job is to strengthen the team's conclusions and results by raising thorny issues that cause the team to reconsider the path it's about to take. In this way they help the team avoid dead ends and disasters.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming September 4: Beating the Layoffs: I
If you work in an organization likely to conduct layoffs soon, keep in mind that exiting voluntarily before the layoffs can carry significant advantages. Here are some that relate to self-esteem, financial anxiety, and future employment. Available here and by RSS on September 4.
And on September 11: Beating the Layoffs: II
If you work in an organization likely to conduct layoffs soon, keep in mind that exiting voluntarily can carry advantages. Here are some advantages that relate to collegial relationships, future interviews, health, and severance packages. Available here and by RSS on September 11.

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