When problems become overwhelming obstacles, what do you do? I was fortunate to be invited on Saturday to briefly welcome a large group of high school students involved in entrepreneurship projects. Jonathan Robertson, the keynote speaker who took to the podium after me, delivered a fantastic, age appropriate, inspirational presentation meant to motivate the students to work hard past the midpoint of their project and achieve their goals in the next 10 weeks left of their journey. His main advice on how to overcome obstacles was twofold: work backwards or find a third way.
When you are trying to achieve something or solve a problem, and the solution is not evident, work backwards. If you know the point where you want your solution to take you, to get to it, work backwards. The speaker used in his talk the example of Paralympic world swimming record holder and Navy Veteran Brad Snyder. Badly injured and rendered blind by an IED explosion in 2011 in Afghanistan, Snyder returned to the US for weeks of recovery. Encouraged by his high school swimming coach, he took on the sport he had practiced when younger, persevering and reaching the top of his game. Despite his success during his focused training at the pool, daily living chores became hard to cope with. He was particularly frustrated, as he told his coach, by not being able to put the right amount of toothpaste on the brush in the mornings to brush his teeth. His coach told him to work backwards. If the goal is to get the right amount of toothpaste on the brush to then put it in your mouth, and you can’t accomplish that because you can’t see how much you are squeezing out, and you can’t match the end of the paste tube to the tip of your brush, work with the end in mind. Brad learned to squeeze the right amount straight into his mouth and then brush his teeth.
When a solution to a problem is not evident, try to find a third way. The speaker told the thousand-year-old story attributed to an Arabic mathematician of the rich father who in his will instructed his sons to distribute his camels among themselves upon his death. The oldest son was to take one half of the camels. The second oldest was to take one third, and the youngest one ninth. When the father died, the sons could not figure out how to divide among themselves the 17 camels the father owned, without having to cut up a camel into pieces. They had no use for a dead camel. They consulted a wise woman in the town who told them she did not have a solution, but she could help by giving the brothers the one camel she had to her name, to help them carry on their father’s will. Now, with 18 camels in the herd, the oldest son was able to take nine (1/2 of them), the second son took six (1/3rd of them), and the youngest was able to take 1/9th, or 2 camels. They successfully distributed 17 camels (9+6+2) and the wise lady said, “now that you’ve been able to carry out your father’s will, I can take my camel back”. The wise lady had shown the brothers how to find a third way to solve their problem.
The thing I liked the most about these stories is their simplicity and applicability to everyday tasks. Working backwards is a very basic way of explaining project management. Breaking out big endeavors into simple tasks and placing them in order from the finish line to the start line makes the end goal seem less daunting, easier to digest. Finding a third way trains your creativity muscle. It forces you to become inventive, and if you can’t come up with a third way, it forces you to ask for help, to bring in others that can share their ideas and enable the third way to come to light. This all goes back to the Chinese proverb that states that if I have a dollar, and you have a dollar, and we exchange them among ourselves, we will still each have one dollar at the end. Alternatively, if I have an idea, and you have an idea, and we exchange them, we each at the end will have two ideas. If at first you don’t find the third way, join forces with others and together you will find it.