December 16, 2011


Filed under: business,creativity,workflow — Erik Dobberkau @ 21:28

Facing a problem, we choose one out of two options to restore harmony: Ignore the problem, hoping it’ll go away. Or jump on it and try to solve it as quick as we can.

Jumping on a problem happens when the solving process is one promising a bit of fun or distraction from other problems along the way. That’s why some people are very eager to help others solve their problems so they don’t have to mind their own. In this case, solving a problem implies ignoring another one. And the only reason we ignore problems is they make us uncomfortable.

So it turns out solving problems has two basic dimensions, effort and benefit. And there is of course a certain fallacy that comes with our expectations because so far we have left out one crucial step. The fallacy is that we expect a problem regardless of its level of complexity to be solved immediately and permanently, and it should be done effortless but the result be beneficial for all. Though these four goals are not contradictory, it’s the unlikelier they will be achieved the higher the complexity of the problem is.

Which is why we really need to think about the complexity of a problem before we start solving it. The point is that more often than not we think we know how to solve any problem because we merely know the first step(s) of the process. As a matter of course, this suffices for simple problems, but it’s already a pitfall for problems with a low level of complexity, because we tend to only consider the good-case scenario. In problems with high levels of complexity or even complicated ones, this will get you into serious trouble along the way.

The only thing we can do to avoid this is to outline the current situation, define when the problem is solved and work different solution scenarios by breaking the solution process down into single steps and extrapolate future efforts and benefits. I’ll tell you in a second why this matters. While we’re working down the list of steps we’ve chosen, we need to monitor the process and if necessary readjust the parameters which lead our decisions, and we can only do this on evidence. This is important. Your stomach is a bad advisor in this case. If it has any relevance, it should lead you to sift through all your accumulated data so far and try to find evidence for your assumptions. If there is none, it’s only because you feel now that you have a negative effort/benefit ratio.

At the beginning all of this is not fun, especially when it seems to complicate problems you thought to be solved easily. In this case, the process helps you not to walk into a dead end, saving you from both frustration and the impression of incompetence. Not too bad a deal. In case of very complex problems, it takes away your petrification in face of an impregnable challenge.

It’s all in your head. Now get to it!

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