Defining the problem

Problem solving fortune cookieThe recent David Allen newsletter has an essay on Time Management Is Not the Issue. I've read and listen to him talk on this topic a number of times, but what he says this time strikes a deeper chord for some reason.

Most everyone these days admits they could use better "time management." But the reason it has not really been addressed to any universal satisfaction is because time management isn't about managing time. If it was, just buying and using a calendar (and a good watch) would handle it.

The savvy among you will usually acknowledge that it's really self management—what we do with ourselves during the time we have.

The issue I'm interested in has to do with how we define the problem. In this case, the problem isn't time management or information overload - it is self management. But in other cases, you might be dealing with other questions / problems. Cash flow problem? Is that not enough income, or too much spending? Frequent inventory stock-outs on one product and constantly too much on hand with another? Is this a problem of forecasting or a poor incoming supply chain or something else? Are you angry at your spouse? Is it their fault, or is it your reaction today?

There are many other directions to go with this. I like getting under the skin of a question to see what is happening and try to discover deeper understanding of what is going on. It's always interesting to realize that the first blush "solution" to problems is often a treatment of the symptoms, rather than a solution that will remove the symptoms altogether.

Please be careful how you define the problem ... and the resulting solution.

[Photo: "Problem solving fortune cookie" by Tomasz Stasiuk]

2 Comment(s)

Daniel said:

As an Operational Research modeller this is crucial getting the right answer to the wrong problem is legion

You could be wading into deep territory here. I would agree that "time management" might mislead many people into thinking that somehow they can magically change the number of hours in the day or that making mega lists and filling out calendars (anyone still using Filofax or Franklin Covey binders?) fixes anything.

I think a lot of this is self-awareness IQ (what the heck, let's throw another type of IQ one could measure). That is to say, do those who never seem to be on top of their tasks and time the architects of their own frazzle? I think of it as the "I'm so important--I must be because look at how busy I am?" mindset for some folks. They haven't faced the fact that activity does not equal achievement.

The best experience I had was being in technical project management and a tip on mapping out what needs to be done--the A-B-C approach. Lists are created in batches of A (high priority), B (moderate priority) and C (the world won't implode if it never gets done). Linear lists won't fly if you have dependencies that you have to wait on someone else, however you can work on a less urgent task while you wait for the other person and clean out your B category.

If someone has a list where everything is an A or A+, they're either being facetious or they have a serious need to recruit a back-up employee because the job clearly needs more staff. If someone is always accomplishing C level tasks, then you have a serious chat on the subject of activity vs. achievement.

I suppose I think in terms of emergency medical triage as a system to ensure that the symptoms seldom arise because good use is made of "down" time, when people are not fire-fighting what they can't control.

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