- Coming April 24: Big, Complicated Problems
- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
- And on May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
Other topical archives:
March 13, 2019
- Some Risks of Short-Term Fixes
- When we encounter a problem at work, we must choose between short-term fixes (also known as workarounds) and long-term solutions. Often we choose workarounds without appreciating the risks we're accepting — until too late.
February 27, 2019
- Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming.
February 20, 2019
- Brainstorming and Speedstorming: I
- Recent research suggests that brainstorming might not be as effective as we would like to believe it is. An alternative, speedstorming, might have some advantages for some teams solving some problems.
January 30, 2019
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
January 16, 2019
- 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.
November 14, 2018
- The Goal Is Not the Path
- Sometimes, when reaching a goal is more difficult than we thought at first, instead of searching for another way to get there, we adjust the goal. There are alternatives.
October 10, 2018
- Help for Finding Help
- When we find ourselves at a loss for finding a good path forward, and we feel overwhelmed by events, support can make things easier. But seeking support is difficult for some. Why is that?
January 31, 2018
- Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
- The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions.
December 27, 2017
- On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
August 2, 2017
- Linear Thinking Bias
- When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution.
July 26, 2017
- Strategic Waiting
- Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option.
July 5, 2017
- Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
June 28, 2017
- 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.
December 28, 2016
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
December 21, 2016
- Problem Displacement and Technical Debt
- The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another. It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?
November 9, 2016
- Solving the Problem of Solving Problems
- Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
August 31, 2016
- Contributions, Open and Closed
- We can classify contributions to discussions according to the likelihood that they stimulate new thought. The more open they are, the more they stimulate new thought. How can we encourage open contributions?
August 24, 2016
- Virtual Teams Need Generous Travel Budgets
- Although virtual team members who happen to be co-located do meet from time to time, meetings of people who reside at different sites are often severely restricted by tight or non-existent travel budgets. Such restrictions, intended to save money, can contribute to expensive delays and errors.
April 20, 2016
- Virtual Brainstorming: II
- When virtual teams must brainstorm, they try to do so virtually. But brainstorming isn't just another meeting. There's a real risk that virtual brainstorms might produce inadequate results. Here's Part II of some suggestions for reducing the risk.
April 13, 2016
- Virtual Brainstorming: I
- When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic. Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
January 13, 2016
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II
- When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning. Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
January 6, 2016
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I
- When complex systems misbehave, a common urge is to find any way at all to end the misbehavior. Succumbing to that urge can be a big mistake. Here's why we succumb.
December 30, 2015
- Call in the Right Expert
- When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
December 23, 2015
- 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.
December 16, 2015
- Wishful Significance: I
- When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.
December 9, 2015
- Clearing Conflict Fog
- At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
November 4, 2015
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: II
- Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.
October 28, 2015
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
- How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
October 21, 2015
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
December 3, 2014
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common. Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog.
November 5, 2014
- Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II
- Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
October 29, 2014
- 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?
April 30, 2014
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
April 23, 2014
- 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.
April 16, 2014
- 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.
July 10, 2013
- 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.
December 26, 2012
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
December 12, 2012
- Problem-Solving Preferences
- When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to emphasize the goal or objective, while others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an asset and annoyance.
September 12, 2012
- 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.
September 5, 2012
- Intentionally Unintentional Learning
- Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
August 22, 2012
- Hill Climbing and Its Limitations
- Finding a better solution by making small adjustments to your current solution is usually a good idea. The key word is "usually."
April 18, 2012
- Reactance and Decision-Making
- Some decisions are easy. Some are difficult. Some decisions that we think will be easy turn out to be very, very difficult. What makes decisions difficult?
February 29, 2012
- 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.
February 22, 2012
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
- When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
February 15, 2012
- 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.
February 8, 2012
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
- When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
January 4, 2012
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: II
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
December 28, 2011
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: I
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
October 26, 2011
- Decisions: How Looping Back Helps
- Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
August 31, 2011
- Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"
- In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
August 24, 2011
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
August 17, 2011
- New Ideas: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
August 10, 2011
- New Ideas: Generation
- When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
October 20, 2010
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
September 15, 2010
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
September 8, 2010
- Clueless on the Concept
- When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
August 11, 2010
- Take Charge of Your Learning
- Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
July 28, 2010
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
May 5, 2010
- Problem Not-Solving
- Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
April 28, 2010
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
April 14, 2010
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
April 7, 2010
- Project Improvisation Fundamentals
- Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
January 6, 2010
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
September 9, 2009
- The Questions Not Asked
- Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
June 17, 2009
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
December 31, 2008
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Group Dynamics
- When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
December 17, 2008
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
June 25, 2008
- Unintended Consequences
- Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
May 21, 2008
- What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
March 5, 2008
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
December 5, 2007
- Annoyance to Asset
- Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
November 22, 2006
- Asking Brilliant Questions
- 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.
October 25, 2006
- What Makes a Good Question?
- In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
October 11, 2006
- 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.
October 4, 2006
- Breaking the Rules
- Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
September 27, 2006
- 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 assumptions are.
September 6, 2006
- 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.
August 9, 2006
- 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.
August 2, 2006
- Workplace Barn Raisings
- Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
July 12, 2006
- We Are All People
- When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
March 15, 2006
- Problem-Solving Ambassadors
- In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
February 8, 2006
- Ten Tactics for Tough Times: II
- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part II of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
February 1, 2006
- Ten Tactics for Tough Times: I
- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part I of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
January 25, 2006
- The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights
- Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
December 7, 2005
- 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.
October 26, 2005
- 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?
August 10, 2005
- How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
August 3, 2005
- Problem Defining and Problem Solving
- Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
May 11, 2005
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
April 20, 2005
- Knowing Where You're Going
- Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
March 2, 2005
- Working Lunches
- To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
January 19, 2005
- Obstacles to Compromise
- Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
January 12, 2005
- Emergency Problem Solving
- In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
January 5, 2005
- 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?
October 27, 2004
- Bois Sec!
- When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again — if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both cheaper and faster.
January 21, 2004
- Coping with Problems
- How we cope with problems is a choice. When we choose our coping style, we help determine our ability to address the problems we face. Of eight styles we can identify, only one is universally constructive, and we rarely use it.
December 10, 2003
- Help for Asking for Help
- When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
December 3, 2003
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
August 6, 2003
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
July 30, 2003
- Choices for Widening Choices
- Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?
July 23, 2003
- Poverty of Choice by Choice
- Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
June 4, 2003
- 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?
April 23, 2003
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
December 11, 2002
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
September 25, 2002
- Make Space for Serendipity
- Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it. If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
August 7, 2002
- 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.
April 3, 2002
- Abraham, Mark, and Henny
- Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
August 15, 2001
- When All Your Options Are Bad
- When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines to finding your way to a good outcome.
June 20, 2001
- Illegal Dumping
- To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for someone else.
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