Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 40;   October 2, 2019: Start Anywhere

Start Anywhere

by

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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.
Samples of bubble wrap

Samples of bubble wrap. Bubble wrap was invented by Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes as a plastic wallpaper. As wallpaper, it was a failure. But when IBM began using it as packaging material, it found its path to success. This is a clear example of changing an idea to make it successful. Image by Rainer Knäpper, Free Art License, courtesy Wikipedia.

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 clear
that 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Performance Mismanagement Systems: I  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
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Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

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