February 1, 2022

Not having a problem to solve is a problem.

That’s because we need hard, complex problems to solve to fuel our growth, contribution, and earn recognition.

The reward for getting better at solving problems is getting harder, more complex problem to solve. These gnarly, pervasive problems hold the potential for even more growth.

How do you solve hard, complex problems?

Get visual.

The surprising key is to capture the more complete, more accurate, and more clear picture of the problem — and the environment.

It is as simple as going to the whiteboard (digital counts) and using your hands to map the flow, diagram the situation, or otherwise capture the picture of what’s going on.

Resist the urge to start with PowerPoint, Visio or other tools.

Prioritize using your hands to connect with your brain. You might even have a little fun.

Think back to the old childhood show “Picture Pages” and keep it simple. You don’t need a lot of colors or complexity. Simple boxes, lines, arrows, and even stick figures are all you need. Don’t worry about creating a work of art, or even getting all the details correctly.

Now that you have something captured, welcome in additional perspectives by asking them to “show me how it works” — and then collaborate on the flow, elements, and details.

Expect this to get messy before it gets clear.

Keep in mind the process of collaboration produces a better outcome, usually over a few sessions. In person, I take and share pictures of the whiteboard through the various stages of creation. When working remotely, I share my tablet screen and then share a digital copy of the image.

I recently used this approach to help a client better understand why their approach to implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) was stuck. It took a group of five of us a little over four hours across three sessions.

When we finished, it looked like a hot mess with many notes, arrows connecting things together, and additional things we realized as we worked through the process.

Despite the appearance of mess, we gained clarity.

Through the process, we got unstuck and found our path forward.

In my experience, messy means you did good.

Most of our systems and processes grow beyond initial implementation. Each subsequent decision solves a problem while adding to the accumulation of legacy debt. The way we think it works in our heads is often different from what we discover when we map.

The power in mapping — and in solving hard, complex problems — is how the process allows us to realize more connections, learn more about how the process works, and raise new questions.

Just capture what comes up, draw the connections, and add the context

You’ll know you captured it when it collectively feels “good enough” with some “yes, that’s it!” remarks and observers “finally understand” how it all works.

Visualizing the problem by hand shows your work. Invite others to contribute their insights and experience, and together you see the situation differently.

Seeing the situation differently is the purpose.

Then let people see it and give them time to sit with it and think.

Then ask “what else?” to see if you missed anything.

Don’t let people get lost in the minutia of the technical details and accuracy to the point of distraction. If that’s happening, consider if it makes sense to simplify the drawing from a functional level or otherwise clean it up a bit.

Sometimes creating the visual leads to instant insights and clarity on next steps.More often, the visual is the first step to figure out the right questions to ask.

Embrace the hard, complex problems in your path by getting your art on and making it visual.

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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