Procrastination certainly accounts for some part of the delay in addressing big, complicated problems. And another part is our impression that the problem is so big and complicated that we can't make any progress at all on it right now, so we defer addressing it. When we finally do decide to tackle big, complicated problems, we're sometimes surprised to find how rapidly we could make significant progress. After making some progress, even if the big, complicated problem is still a big, complicated problem, it's a little less big and a little less complicated than it was before, or maybe a little less big and a little less complicated than we thought it was.
This happens, in part, because it's incredibly difficult to accurately assess both the difficulty of resolving any given big, complicated problem, and our own ability to do so. We're just not very good at making those assessments. That's unfortunate, because if we could acknowledge our inability to make accurate assessments, we might be more likely to accept the possibility that our fears are overblown.
The real question here might be this: if we're so bad at assessing our ability to meet the challenges of solving big, complicated problems, why are we so ready to accept the belief that we can't solve them? Couldn't it be true that if we were to take a crack at solving the problem, we might find that we could make some real progress? And how is it that we can recall so many incidents in which that was exactly what happened?
Think about some examples from history: sending people to the moon and back; creating the United Nations; eradicating smallpox. Certainly many problems remain to be resolved, but clearly we have a capacity for solving some really nasty ones.
Now think about problems in your workplace. They're probably much smaller and less complicated than sending people to the moon and back or eradicating smallpox. But still we defer addressing them.
One classOne class of big, complicated
problems is the behavior of some
individuals that makes others
uncomfortable, even if that
behavior isn't overtly abusive of big, complicated problems is the behavior of some individuals that makes others uncomfortable or fearful. Excessive touching, bullying, or pressure to participate in unethical activity, are clearly out of bounds. But some might have a reasonable fear of retaliation if they take steps to address the problem, and so they feel unable to act. If you've lived a situation like this, you know it can be a big, complicated problem. It can take over your mind, and it can end the peace you once had in your work life.
These problems, like others, sometimes resolve almost immediately once we take action to address them. Here are some steps to take that can adjust your perception of the gap between the challenge of the big, complicated problem, and your ability to meet that challenge.
- Get advice from someone you trust
- You probably trust a loved one more than anyone else. You can start there. And for workplace challenges, that kind of trust might not be what you really need. Someone who understands the kind of problem you want to address might have more pertinent insights. A colleague, a coach, or a counselor might be more useful.
- Remember, though, advice is only advice. You remain responsible for any action you take, even when someone else suggests it.
- Assess your resources
- Awareness of our own resources can be elusive, because our resources are always with us. And when we lose awareness of resources, we access them less often, and they retreat further from our awareness.
- That's why assessing your resources might be a fruitful topic to talk about with someone you trust. People other than yourself might be more aware of your unique capacities and opportunities than you are.
- Consider whether you've solved a similar problem before
- There are two possible advantages to considering whether you've solved a similar problem before. First, the solution you used before might work for the problem you have now, or it might lead to a new way of dealing with the problem you have now.
- Second, and possibly more important, is the possibility that the problem has re-occurred because of a pattern in your own behavior. That might sound ominous. But if it's true, you have a chance to eliminate the root cause by learning something about yourself and making adjustments. That can be hard work, but the reward is eliminating the chances of re-occurrence.
- Look for a workaround
- When the challenge remains daunting after seeking advice, assessing resources, and recalling similar problems, another path you haven't considered might still be available. In engineering, we call such approaches workarounds. We find a way to get around the problem without actually solving the problem.
- Workarounds are most helpful when we believe that a real solution might become available in the near future. For example, if your boss is a bully, transferring to a different workgroup might be a workaround until you can finally change jobs or find a new career. Beware, though. Workarounds can be a tempting form of procrastination.
When a workaround is unavailable, and the challenge remains daunting, and tolerating the situation isn't an option, escape is about all that's left. It's a last option, but it is an option.
Escape can seem shameful. We think, "I should be able to deal with this, and because I can't, I'm a lesser being." But if there is no alternative, in escape there is no shame — only wisdom. Feelings of shame certainly don't help solve the problem, and they can be depleting and discouraging. Most important, there is no evidence supporting the premise that anyone should be able to deal with any problem. Evaluating your own worth on the basis of such an unsubstantiated claim is unjustified. Sometimes, escape can be your least bad option. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work,
our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Solutions as Found Art
- Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they
aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways.
Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs,
because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure
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determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to 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 don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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