How to Solve Unsolvable Problems

In the past, I’ve studied and attended training specifically for systems engineering and project management, and in both cases, I was struck by an interesting concept, which is that many of the challenges faced by these two roles and disciplines don’t really have good solutions. This ended up being something I encountered again and again in my roles as an engineering lead and project manager, so much so that I started calling these situations, “Unsolvable Problems”.

One example of an Unsolvable Problem is dealing with external dependencies. For example, say you’re delivering a project to a customer and there’s a third-party vendor that you need them to deliver. And for whatever reason, that vendor doesn’t deliver on time. How can you address that? You can’t control the actions of that vendor. If they deliver late then they will cause you to be late and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

So how do you handle an Unsolvable Problem?

Risk Management

The first approach is just to practice good Risk Management. What this means is identifying these problems as early as you can and applying formal risk management techniques to it. In fact, I would say that risk management is one of the most underappreciated areas of project management. It is, in fact, one of the most important but is very rarely managed formally and quantitatively.

So for example, the problem above. This should be identified as a risk as early as possible, as in the exact moment that it becomes known that there is an external dependency. (In fact, my mantra is that EVERY external dependency should be treated as a risk, for the simple reason that any external dependency creates a non-zero probability of schedule slip).

So if you identify this risk as follows: “If the external vendor is late with their dependency, then our project will have a schedule slip.”

Then you can identify some mitigation ideas to avoid this risk:

  • Find another vendor
  • Build the vendor’s solution in-house instead
  • Be aggressive with the vendor’s delivery date

Suddenly, Unsolvable Problems just become risk management exercises.

“Stare at the wall” Mode

Another option is to find an “innovative solution” to the problem. There’s no formalized way to do this type of problem-solving, and I would frequently just call it “stare at the wall mode”. It is exactly what it sounds like…I would get a cup of coffee and sit and stare at the wall, and just dissect the problem in my head, approach it from different angles, think through it. Sometimes this would result in a burst of inspiration to solve the problem. Other times it was useful in that at least you understand the problem and are aware of all the issues.

“Stare at the wall” can also be practiced with a small group of trusted people, with an intentional brainstorming session.

Expectation Management

Above all else, the key to all of this is good communication with your customer. Formalizing the communication with them, especially with risk management, can be done by scheduling regular periodic meetings to discuss your risks, and ensure they are aware of the potential Unsolvable Problems and what you are doing to address them. This at least means that if a schedule or performance slip occurs your customer is not caught off guard. Expectation management is one of the keys to ensuring satisfied, delighted customers.

Using these concepts above, you can manage Unsolvable Problems and always be moving forward with executing your technical projects and be on the way to success.

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