Intractable Problems – Beyond Solution?

att02774.jpgThe word “intractable” supposedly originated in the mid 16th century, causing me to postulate that really tough problems didn’t exist on this planet before then.  Standing before an intractable problem is kind of like being told you have to eat an entire Cadillac.  Solutions don’t immediately suggest themselves, so at least we don’t fall into the trap of “rushing to solution” before thoroughly considering what we hope to achieve.  In fact, when facing an intractable problem we may not even feel like tackling it, mostly because we just assume it’s impossible, like getting along with your mother-in-law.  Confronted with a seemingly insurmountable challenge it’s tempting to just run off into the woods and have a nervous breakdown, or go shopping.

Don’t let these kinds of problems paralyze you.  They do yield to a methodology that I’ve come across for turning breakdowns into breakthroughs.  Here’s my take on this approach, which I’ve used a number of times this past year with sometimes surprising results:

1.  Clarify the beastly challenge by answering a version of the paradigm-shifting questions made famous by Joel Barker “In this circumstance, what seems impossible, but if it were possible, would transform the situation for the better?”  Write it all up on big flip charts on the wall.  You are dealing with a problem that is bigger than life, so you might as well write big!  Wax poetic as you describe the unobtainable possibilities.  That should put a rather fine point on the desired future state.

2.  Using the power of negative thinking, generate a list of all of the reasons why this future state is not possible.  What would any reasonable person say will prevent success, or even progress?  Be sure to include all barriers and obstacles standing in the way, including common sense and other self-limiting beliefs that seem “true”.

3.  Challenge yourself to think of at least 100 ideas in response to the question “Even though it seems impossible, what would make it possible?”  Pretend you have a magic wand and infinite cosmic power.  If you are working with a group, brainstorm silently at first using post-notes so people don’t discourage each other’s creativity by snorting at “stupid” ideas. Include at least one idea that would never work and one that would get you fired, divorced or ostracized.

4.  Identify the 3 ideas that you would NEVER adopt – any themes or patterns there?  Sometimes this is very revealing.  Then identify your 3 favorite ideas, choose a course of action, and get busy.  Once you have a good idea of what you want to achieve, and work out all of the nagging voices arguing for defeat before the first battle is fought, take a few stumbling steps forward to get yourself moving.  Like a sailboat on an ocean, you can’t steer if you aren’t moving.

Stay focused on your intended future state, stay close to your buddies – you don’t have to solve these kinds of problems alone – and stay committed to the outcome even in the face of evidence that it’s impossible.  The breakthroughs come just 5 minutes after you feel like giving up.

Only a few more days to come up with some New Year’s resolutions. . . maybe it’s time to take on one of those impossible problems you’re facing!

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.


2 thoughts on “Intractable Problems – Beyond Solution?”

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    Let us know how it turns out, Josh. I’ve always been able to at least get partial credit on a problem with this method. Looking forward to hearing about your experiences!

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