No Apparent Problem to No Actual Problem

April 8, 2007 by
Filed under: Agility, Process 

However we would like to frame it: an approach to problem solving, a progression of learning, or simply how we grow over time, there are stages that we pass through along the way.

We evolve from no apparent problem, through these stages, to the point where the problem no longer exists. Some of these stages may pass by imperceptibly, while others may be stumbling blocks that we struggle (or fail) to overcome.

We start out blissfully unaware that a problem even exists – it is not even on our radar. Certainly in our youth, there can be a stage where we believe we know it all. In software development, this is the point where we have yet to discover that the end user has a challenge to overcome (often after they have begun to use our product). For many of us, this is where we were perhaps a decade ago with the issue of global warming. Today, even though few of us remain unaware of this issue, we are still a long way from solving the problem.

There are times when we hear about a new issue and meet it with skepticism that it is a problem at all. Perhaps we might even see the problem, but fail to see how it affects us. We can walk past the homeless in our own hometown with more of a feeling of disgust than passion, for example. A friend of mine recently noted, in this context, that “Where you see an addict, I see suffering.”

The more we learn about a problem, though, the more likely we are to find that it indeed does affect us in some way. In software, a prospect with an issue is an opportunity to embrace, a disgruntled user of our product can teach us a great deal. With our gaining awareness comes the beginnings of personalization of the problem, and until this happens, we aren’t likely to devote serious effort to solving this problem.

For many problems, we can hit the point in our learning where the problem appears to be overwhelming, just too big to resolve. “I can’t possibly make a dent in that sort of issue, how the heck could I deal with that?” It can be easy to stop here, to use this as an excuse for not going further, and stay comfortable with our current habits. While this is not often a barrier in aggressive business situations, it can be easy to lean on this as a means of not taking action on the deeper issues we face as a society.

With deeper discovery, we can start to appreciate that there might indeed be a solution to the problem, but we are still not at the point where we can grasp that solution. In seeing that there is solvability, though, our learning takes on a different dimension. We can analyze to break down the problem into manageable chunks (the old ‘eating the elephant’ scenario), and discover alternatives on how to address the problem.

We’ve started to personalize the problem and have even broken it down into bite-sized pieces, but now we find that the approaches that make sense to solve the problem are uncomfortable for us. We haven’t done this sort of thing before. At the same time that we are starting to become comfortable with our understanding of the problem space, we struggle with the discomfort in the solution space. The solution can mean changing the way we do things.

As we progress from here, we are consciously applying the solution, fine tuning and gaining more familiarity with our approach. We often make mistakes the first few time we try to do something new, but this is really just an indication that we are truly learning. How many times have you read something, thought you understood it, then find the real issues when you try to take it to the next level? How many times have you applied a potential solution to find that it didn’t really fit that problem after all?

Eventually, we start to warm to the solution, fine-tune our approach, and gain comfort in doing things this different way. Our effectiveness grows significantly at this point, as we transition from thinking about the steps that we need to take and can think more about ensuring that what we are doing is actually the right thing in the context of the current problem.

Finally, we become completely comfortable with the solution. We have made it to the point where our habits have been adjusted, and we don’t even have to think to apply the solution to resolve the problem. Indeed, the original problem, the one that we had to struggle to even understand that it existed in the first place, is a problem no more. Here, we have to be careful to ensure that our new effective habits aren’t over-applied.

All along the way, we have adjusted, and rewired our thinking. We learn every step of the way, and we all go through these stages. This is true for software development issues, interpersonal issues, geopolitical issues. Not all of these stages are straightforward, some are downright difficult for us to get over, while others never seem to give us a problem at all.

As individuals, some of us have difficulty seeing things in a new light to understand that problems even exist. Others are challenged to change existing habits and approaches. We progress at different rates through these stages, and being aware that it is a grand progression is valuable in helping us understand what we are really struggling with at any point in time.

For me, I’m perhaps half-way through the progression with the global warming issue, but in dealing with the homeless or otherwise marginalized, I’m a mere beginner. For any other issue I face, I can easily identify which stage I am at, and knowing this clarifies what I should do next to progress.

As I was typing this, my son came by and marveled at my touch-typing technique. I’ve been at it for over 30 years now, and for the most part (I’m still a bit of hunt-and peck fellow with my right hand, a legacy of using a mouse for too long) I have progressed a long way in this chain of learning. I certainly don’t have to consciously think about the steps of typing to capture my thoughts.

In our careers, in our lives, we all have a wide range of issues in various stages of being solved. Which stages do you struggle with? Are there issues that you have yet to acknowledge their impact? Are you still struggling with consciously applying steps to a task that should be internalized? How many problems do you remain blissfully unaware of? Which issues have you tackled to the point where they are no longer a concern? How can you take your learning to the next stage in areas you have been struggling with? – JB

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