One Key Problem-Solving Mistake You Don't Want to Make

The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces. - Will Rogers

Tweet: The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces. - Will Rogers via @dandiamondmd

As a former street mime, I have a good amount of experience when it comes to improvisation. In the world of improv we have a foundational principle widely known as "Yes-And". One person throws out a line (or in the case of a mime, a gesture) and the other person responds with the attitude of "Yes-And" and then builds on the scene. For example, an improv troupe is given the scene: "playing baseball with blindfolds". The first actor grabs a invisible baseball bat and asks if it has been painted white with a red tip. The next actor moves the scene along by saying "yes it does" and then talks about how to use that white bat with the red tip with input from his guide dog and the scene is in motion. As soon as either person takes on the attitude of "no-but", the scene comes to a screeching halt. It only takes one person to stop and say, "No... this can't work. Blind people can't play baseball" and the creativity is cut off at the knees. In a similar fashion, in the midst of high stakes problem solving, viewing an outcome as a failure completely derails the process, destroys innovation and dooms the team to defeat.

When I'm working in the trenches of an international disaster it is imperative that I stay engaged and not view negative outcomes as failures. If you could look inside my head when I'm under pressure, you would see that I use a cyclical problem solving strategy called Disaster-Improv™ that is based on three action steps:

  1. SEE
  2. SORT
  3. SOLVE

Underlying Disaster-Improv is a foundational law that is similar to the "Yes-And" principle of Improv. It states:

"There is no such thing as failure, only feedback".


When I arrive on scene in a disaster, my brain is fully engaged. I do a rapid assessment to SEE what the issues are. I then SORT out the problems and prioritize them. Working with my team, I then set out to SOLVE the highest priority problem. After attempting a solution, I immediately go back once again to the SEE phase to look at the outcome. Very rarely do I get the best outcome the first time around so I use the SEE phase to discover what new insights I have learned. In fact, sometimes the gap between the problem and solution may have even widened after the first time around but I use the "Yes-And" approach to prioritize learning and keep my brain engaged. Then comes the SORT then the SOLVE then the SEE. I cycle through again and again until we arrive at a solution that works.

In some ways this is similar to cannon warfare. Cannons don't have "sights" like guns. Accurately firing a cannon is a complex process that involves estimating the distance, the amount of gunpowder and the weight of the cannon ball. An artillerist would load the cannon and then use a gunner's quadrant (a type of clinometer, first developed in the mid 1600s) to set the angle of the barrel. They did the best they could to predict where the cannon ball would land and lit the powder. As soon as the smoked cleared, they anxiously looked to see where the ball landed so they could make new calculations and try again. It was a game of best approximations and rapid adjustments. Frequently, the side that was quickest to adapted won the battle. It also helped to have a lot of cannon balls. Imagine the scene if, after firing the first shot, one side said, "Well, we missed. We might as well surrender or go home.

Steven Pressfield, in his game changing book The War of Art , introduced the concept of The Resistance that we all have lurking within us. It loves the status quo so it will do anything to keep us from taking risks or doing great work. The Resistance will sabotage us, humiliate us and tell us that we don't know what we are doing. It is the ever present shadow that feeds the imposter syndrome. The Resistance warns us, "If you try and don't succeed, you will be a failure and everyone will know." If you listen to The Resistance, it is all too tempting to play it safe and stay on the sidelines.

To overcome The Resistance, anticipate negative outcomes and choose to SEE what you can learn. Define negative outcomes as part of the progress forward. I'm not suggesting that we use the Silicon Valley strategy of "failing fast". They proclaimed that is was a great idea to take massive risk knowing that it may fail because occasionally something would work. "Failing fast" is a lousy strategy that's only helpful if you are using someone else's money.

Rather than a "fail-fast" strategy, I'm proposing a cyclical "learn-fast" strategy using Disaster-Improv™:

  1. SEE the situation
  2. Diligently SORT the priorities.
  3. Actively attempt to SOLVE the problem.

Repeat as necessary.

Much like an old gunner firing his cannons, make it your goal to rapidly adjust and improve your aim. Don't give up. When the stakes are high and the pressure is paralyzing remember to SEE, SORT, SOLVE ...and repeat as necessary.

"There is no such thing as failure, only feedback".


What has been your experience? How do you overcome The Resistance? How do you deal with negative outcomes? Please share your comments below.