It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      May, 2016 Full Moon Edition      

Focus on the Goal, not the Constraint

One of the quirks in human nature is played out every day by fresh and saltwater fisherman. That quirk is a fisherman in a boat is often trying to cast as close to the shore as possible, while a fisherman on the shore is trying to cast as far from the shore as possible.

I found it hilarious this month when walking back from my favorite sunrise fishing spot to see a shore fisherman who had waded out past a boat to cast as far away from the shore as possible, and the anglers from the boat having gotten out of their boat to wade and cast as close to the shore as possible.

This scenario reflects a common aspect of human nature: The belief that whatever is the opposite of the constraint/perceived constraint is where the solution is found, or whatever is seemingly out of reach is where the solution or “the good stuff” is found.  If you are on the shore the fish are far out, if you are far out the fish are near the shore.

Correspondingly, many solutions exist in the work environment that may be overlooked because we are focused on overcoming the most obvious constraint and not the goal. Overcoming the obvious constraint may be the solution, however the constraint often permeates our thinking to the point that it blinds us to the goal. Overcoming the constraint is usually not the only solution and we must always define the problem in terms of the goal, not the constraint.

Cheaper solutions, easier to implement solutions are frequently found if we focus on the goal and not the obvious constraint.

Focus on the goal means the goal is clearly defined in context. Clearly defined means written down with all input and output parameters that affect the goal also defined and delineated. Clearly defined means we understand how sensitive the goal is to those input and output parameters. This is non-trivial analysis and requires leadership and discipline to overcome the “let’s take the first solution” mentality that exists in many resource constrained, tight timeline environments.

There was an operational constraint on a piece of space flight hardware during my tenure at NASA that mandated this hardware be replaced frequently. This resulted in a low inventory situation and sometimes made the hardware unavailable, potentially delaying a launch. Smart people in the program wanted to redesign the hardware to eliminate or delay the need for frequent replacement, the obvious constraint.

This redesign was a multi-million dollar solution and was avoided by focusing on the goal (having the hardware available), and the input and output parameters in relationship to that goal. Analyzing the system by focusing on the goal showed that small changes in the hardware vendor’s refurbishment process, that were a fraction of the cost of the redesign, made the hardware continually available despite the operational constraint.

Systems, be they business processes or technology systems are complex. It is common for people to focus on the obvious or the visible constraint without adequate understanding of the system as a whole. This lack of understanding frequently creates a rush to judgment for a solution tied to an obvious constraint, when easier, cheaper or less risky solutions may be available if we would take the time to step back and understand the system as a whole in the context of the goal.  Always be wary of simplifying assumptions or shallow analysis of complex systems.

Time spent understanding the problem and all of its nuances in terms of the goal is rarely time wasted. If medical doctors acted like some decision makers in the business environment, as soon as you said you had a problem they would schedule you for surgery without in depth analysis and then take pride in their decisiveness.

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