Don’t Think of a Pink Squirrel

xmasmartini.jpgWhere I live in the Silicon Valley, on the west coast of Obama country, this time of year most people are busy celebrating one holiday or another.  It’s a season I’ve come to call the “alcoholidays” for obvious reasons.  So in order to stay off of the streets and have a credible excuse for not doing any Christmas shopping, I volunteered to blog this week.  But it is the holidays, after all, so I’ll keep my blogs brief and festive.  The theme I’ve chosen for the week is “Problem-solving”.  OK, so far it’s not sounding all that festive, but I’ve got problems on the brain right now as a result of watching the news, a bad habit I picked up during the recent US presidential election.  Let’s give it a whirl!

To start with, what are the various types of problems are out there reeking havoc on our projects, our planet, and our very lives?  As I pondered this, I recalled that I’ve always loved the quote by Harry Lorayne, “A problem, precisely defined, is already partially solved.”  But as I searched for a good problem definition taxonomy I had this awful realization – defining a problem is both an important ingredient and a huge potential pitfall in solving it.  Be careful how you classify a problem!  Most classifications I’ve come across assume causes and imply solutions.  Here are a few examples:

  • Technical Problems – Presumes technology is causing the problem, and can be relied upon to solve it.
  • Communication Problems – Presumes communication, or lack of it, is both the cause and the cure.
  • People Problems (My favorite!) – Presumes people are causing this problem, and tacitly suggests that someone (not you, of course!) is to blame.

Oh, woe is me!  As soon as I label something a “people problem” my brain starts looking for ways to fix or change people, something I’ve found impossible to do predictably on anything short of a geological timescale.  Like trying NOT to think of a pink squirrel, I can’t get my mind out of this rut, and the range of possible solutions is immediately and artificially narrowed.

One thing I’ve learned over years of solving plenty of problems in project after project is that it’s important to separate the problem definition phase from the solution generation phase.  If we’re going to generate an effective range of possible solutions it’s essential that we avoid categories that smoosh these two phases together.  After rejecting a bunch of existing taxonomies as either incomplete, unhelpful, or just plain boring, I created my own.  In order of easiest to hardest, here’s a list of the types of problems I’ll rant about in the blogs this week:

  • Expenses masquerading as problems.
  • Tolerable problems.
  • Self-induced problems.
  • Manageable problems.
  • Recurring problems.
  • Intractable problems.
  • Wicked problems.

Based on the newspaper I was reading on the flight home from Japan last week I estimate that there are over 17,572,486 different problems in the world.  Some of them probably don’t fit into these categories, but I only have one week, so I’m going to limit myself to these 7 for the moment.  Think of at least one problem that you’re facing in your project or in your life in each of these categories, then drop by the blog each day to mull it over while savoring a glass of eggnog.

Keep those sleigh bells ring-jing-jingalinging!

Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management, regularly one of the top 100 project management books in English in the USA, Japan, Germany, France, sometimes Canada, but usually NOT in the UK, for some reason.  Help me solve this problem (except by dropping “scrappy” or using proper English) and I’ll send you a free book.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top