Stay on Target

24.10.2017 |

Episode #9 of the course Problem solving by Nat Greene


Intrepid problem solvers,

The last behavior of great problem solvers is to stay on target. In hard problems of complex systems, there may be thousands of potential variables to look at and hundreds or thousands of potential root causes. Your journey towards the root cause is one fraught with distractions that can lead you on wild detours or on a path to disaster. To solve a hard problem, you will need to quickly and consistently focus your efforts and take special care to stay on target, avoid distractions and ensure that you are simplifying the problem rather than complicating it.


The Problem of Expansiveness

Great problem solvers march to the root cause in a methodical way, using what they learn along this path to eliminate vast swaths of possible root causes and avenues of inquiry without actually having to study them directly.

If you don’t do this, you can instead get bogged down expanding the scope of your problem endlessly. And many problem-solving methods encourage you to do this: instead of narrowing your avenues of inquiry, they ask you to list as many possible root causes as you can! I have seen problem-solving teams stuck testing well over 200 potential root causes, wasting months and gobs of money trying out solutions to each of these.


Stay on Target

Instead of trying to identify and test all possible root causes, you want to break the problem into parts and eliminate as many of these parts as possible before going deeper.

As with the 5th behavior, “Dig into the Fundamentals,” you can break up your problem by identifying the immediate first principles, or variables, that control your problem variable. Instead of expanding each of these variables by digging in, you can eliminate as many as possible, and only dig into those that you can’t eliminate.

If a variable is on spec, or the pattern of the problem makes it clear that this variable is not contributing to the problem, you can eliminate it.


The Power of Simplifying

When you eliminate a variable, you now no longer need to care about anything that influences that variable. You might be eliminating hundreds of possible root causes at once. Imagine repeatedly doing this to your problem, rather than trying to wrap your arms around every possible influence of the problem.

Structuring your efforts in this way will give you the confidence to have tenacity. A great problem solver knows that each step they take to understand and simplify the problem is getting them closer to understanding the root cause.

This repeated behavior of digging in and then simplifying is the on-target path to the root cause. You will know that you have found the root cause when you identify, understand, and measure the off-spec variable that is directly in your control to change.

This is possibly the single most important conceptual change that problem solvers embrace as soon as they have committed to stopping guessing. Tomorrow stay tuned for some sage advice that I have learned through years of working with great problem solvers.



Recommended video

Stay on Target


Recommended book

Start With Why by Simon Sinek, who demonstrates the power of focusing on what’s important.


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