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The insoluble problem

Chris Kendall

Scrum Master

discusses problems and approaches to solving them

15 November 2017

Problems will always arise with the inherent uncertainty of building software of any real value and complexity. Have you experienced a time when, no matter what road you've chosen, you always seem to come to the same conclusion? A time when a problem only has one logical solution, or the problem is out of your control? We all have, and this can occur more often than we would like.

My current team at Aquila Heywood often encounters problems where we occasionally lose sight of what's causing them. Does this sound familiar? Let's solve this problem - or better yet, let's solve all your problems. The business analyst in me likes to say, 'If you want to solve a complex problem, you need to break it down into small fragments that are easy to manage first', although this is easier said than done. At times, we can't see the wood for the trees!

At the Scrum Alliance Global Gathering 2017 in Dublin, Darian Rashid ran the workshop 'Facilitating Change for Breakthrough Problem Solving'. I was naturally drawn to this session, and it's safe to say I'm glad I went.

Many of you are familiar with Edward de Bono, the king of lateral thinking and most famous for his book 'The Six Thinking Hats'. (If you haven't read this, I strongly suggest it be your next endeavour.) Darian's workshop was skilfully organised and action-packed with delivery of ideas that originated from Edward de Bono but with Darian's unique style.

After setting some ground rules, Darian proposed a problem to us. Surprisingly, it was a problem I hadn't encountered in my teams before, although it was one of similar complexity and magnitude.

Here's the problem:

  • The Titanic is sinking.
  • Approximately 2,500 people are on board, but the lifeboats only hold 1,250 people.
  • Help is five hours away and the boat will sink in four hours.

Our goal: save as many people as possible. We must also keep them out of the water at all times.

Where does your mind go from here? This may depend on whether you're an optimist, pessimist, realist or idealist, or maybe even a conspiracy theorist or a communist.

We used a number of techniques to assist our brain in lateral thinking. These can be tried individually or as part of a group.

Random Input Technique

This is a very simple yet effective lateral thinking technique that encourages your imagination to create different perspectives and new angles on the problem.

Using this technique is simple. Select a noun (it helps if the noun is something that can be seen or touched). Then write it down and list as many attributes or associations with that word until you can't think of any more. Once that's complete, spend the next few minutes brainstorming ideas using the attributes and associations listed. Can you apply them to the problem? Does this generate new ideas for a solution? If not, repeat the process for one or two more words.

For example; the first word we selected was 'hammer', so some of the attributes were:

  • Steel
  • Heavy
  • Strong
  • Tool

We then linked 'heavy' back to the problem (the Titanic's sinking): could we slow down the speed of sinking by reducing the weight of the ship?

Anti-Solution

Next, we tried a technique called the 'Anti-Solution', in which we thought of ideas that would make the problem worse. This was my favourite exercise for breaking down barriers and thinking outside the box. Making the problem worse is easy, right? This completely changed the way we thought and everyone had lots of crazy ideas how we can make it worse. We even reversed the ship back into the iceberg!

To use the Anti-Solution, first write down one way to make the problem worse. Then define the Anti-Solution in detail, how you could achieve this? What resources will you need and why? Repeat the process for other ideas you have for making the problem worse.

Focusing on the Anti-Solution highlighted the key areas where we needed to focus our attention. It also helped to demonstrate what resources we have or need.

Solving the Problem

Now that we have engaged our brain to think outside the box, flip an Anti-Solution on its head and come up with another solution to the problem. I can guarantee that it won't be the same conclusion you came to initially. Some ideas might be a little far-fetched and, when used in a business setting, would need to be evaluated in terms of feasibility and practicality. But even if you can make only marginal gains towards solving the problem, that's great. You're on the right track.

Creative thinking is often wrongly equated with artistry; it's a learned skill and is not genetically predetermined. I encourage you to go and have some fun with breakthrough problem-solving. I'd also be interested to hear your solutions to the Titanic sinking scenario, or hear whether you found this exercise useful. Please email me: chris.kendall@aquilaheywood.co.uk.

Chris Kendall is a Scrum Master at Aquila Heywood, the largest supplier of life and pensions administration software solutions in the UK.

Further Reading