When groups begin searching for paths around their latest obstacles, or when they begin discussing new opportunities, a common pattern that impedes initial progress is a meta-debate about where to begin. Advocates of the various options do mean well; they truly believe that the option they favor is the "best" place to begin. Some do turn out to be correct; many do not. How any of them could know what they claim to know at the very earliest stages of their explorations is often mysterious. But that's a topic for another time.
In my experience, it turns out that starting (almost) anywhere is more valuable than delaying the start to debate what might be the perfectly optimal starting approach. Groups usually start in the wrong direction, even if they first debate the choices extensively. These debates aren't entirely wasteful, because they do clarify somewhat the options available. Still, in many instances, groups can learn much — if not more — by choosing an option with far less deliberation. So I've become an advocate of starting anywhere and seeing what happens, except, of course, when safety or health is an issue, or when trial solutions are irrevocable. With those two exceptions, in many cases, starting anywhere is just about as good as starting anywhere else.
But the start-anywhere approach isn't a license to blunder. There are some conditions attached.
- Change course when the need is clear
- The start-anywhere approach is based on a love of learning. To learn, and to love learning, we must have permission to make mistakes, because learning is the act of acquiring new knowledge or a new skill. After we've learned something, we're able to think or act differently. And to do that entails acknowledging that the old way of thinking or acting might not fit in certain situations.
- We need to feel When we adopt an experimental
attitude, we can start anywhere,
and change course if
the need becomes clearthat it's safe to change after we've learned something. Unless we feel safe to change, acknowledging errors is difficult. That difficulty can cause us to stay on a course long after the time when the need for a course change is clear. Experience with that particular trap probably accounts for much of our tendency to debate which course to take even when we lack enough knowledge to decide among the possible choices.
- Acknowledge cost when cost is a factor
- When we adopt an experimental attitude, we can start anywhere, and change course if the need becomes clear. But these experiments aren't free. If the cost of changing is high enough, our choices of experiments might be influenced more by cost than by their relevance to learning.
- Balancing the need to learn against the cost of learning is acceptable if we know we're doing it. Too often, though, we debate this balance in terms of the goodness of the options, rather than their cost. Because we always do better at whatever we're doing when we we're doing it with intention, acknowledge the cost of experiments when cost is a factor.
- Consider how trying a solution might alter the problem
- When our trial solutions irrevocably change the problem in important ways, we must exercise caution in choosing our trials. In such situations, debate about where to start is worthwhile — it might even be essential.
- As an example, consider choosing a tint for a tinted concrete driveway. We wouldn't tint the concrete and then pour the entire driveway to see whether we like the tint. We'd find a less permanent way to check the tint.
- Still, debates about trial solutions can sometimes fail to address the central issue, which is that we must keep in mind how a trial solution might alter the problem. Some solutions might have more impact than others; some might make irrevocable changes that aren't relevant to our purpose. Focus the where-to-start debate on the issue of irrevocability, and use that issue to generate alternative options and sort through them.
- Value the freedom to discard prototypes
- Often, prototypes become the basis for the final product — probably too often. When we incorporate into the final product designs that we intended only for experimentation or demonstration or proof-of-concept purposes, we're at risk of letting our first efforts become our last. And that can be dangerous when the designs of elements of our first efforts were never intended to support the usage patterns or environment that the final product must support.
- Our fear that our prototype designs will be used in this way can fuel the debates about where to start. When we can be certain that we have the freedom to discard prototypes, where we start becomes far less consequential. Insist on the freedom to discard prototypes.
An environment that supports the above four conditions enables problem solvers to focus on the problem, instead of the consequences of failed solution attempts. Some who are fortunate enough to work in such an environment have not always had such good fortune. They might bring with them perspectives from less supportive environments. Habits of thought can be difficult to change; be gentle with those who are still making the transition. Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Should I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
- When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets,
rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
- Figuring Out What to Do First
- Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly
unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where
to focus our attention first?
- Workplace Politics and Type III Errors
- Most job descriptions contain few references to political effectiveness, beyond the fairly standard
collaborate-to-achieve-results kinds of requirements. But because true achievement often requires political
sophistication, understanding the political content of our jobs is important.
- Design Errors and Group Biases
- Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of
many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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.