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Tommy, lead engineer for the skunkworks project his company had going, sat at his desk, frustrated. “I have tried everything I can think of to simplify this code, and I just can’t do it,” he muttered. “If there’s another way, I don’t know how to find it.” After staring balefully at his screen, he headed for the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Mary, chief technology officer for the company, sat at her desk, also frustrated. “I have tried everything I can think of to make this project work, and I just can’t find a way,” she said, nudging her mouse around her desk morosely. “If there’s a way, I don’t know how to find it.” After arranging a stuffed kitten so it appeared to have caught her mouse, she headed for the kitchen.

Jan, head assistant to the executive team, stared at the mess on the floor. They had just dropped a mug full of fresh-brewed coffee, which had exploded everywhere. Jan sighed, then grabbed a handful of dishcloths. “If there’s a better way to get caffeine into my system, I don’t know how to find it,” they commented to themselves as they started cleaning up.

Just then, Tommy and Mary each entered the kitchen. Seeing Jan on their hands and knees corralling the cup of coffee’s shattered and splattered remains, Tommy and Mary offered their assistance.

“Anything we can do to help?” Tommy asked.

Jan handed dishcloths to each of them. “Why don’t you take the section by the sink, Tommy, and Mary, you can start by the fridge. And thanks.”

A few minutes later, all evidence of the spill was gone. Jan clutched a fresh cup of coffee, Tommy snagged a soda from the cooler, and Mary opened a sparkling water.

“Thanks again for your help,” Jan said. “I’m such a klutz. I’m about ready to start drinking my coffee from a baby bottle.”

“No problem,” said Mary. “I was happy to help. And, I don’t think you’re a klutz. We all drop things from time to time.”

“I wish we could clean up my code as easily as we cleaned up that spill,” Tom said. “It’s such a mess of spaghetti. Everything I try just makes things worse.”

“You seem to be having the same day I am,” Mary commiserated. “I’m struggling to make our next product release fit into the time and effort constraints we have. I don’t know how to complete everything our premium customers are asking for by the dates marketing says we must meet to make the tradeshows. Especially with only the engineers we have free to work on it. It feels like one of those stress ball people: no matter how I try to wrap my hands around it, some body part escapes.”

“That’s rough,” Jan empathized. “Fortunately for you both, I’ve found a foolproof way to solve every problem. Want to hear it?”

“Yes, please,” Mary and Tommy chorused.

1) Acknowledge you may not have a solution

“It’s just three simple steps,” Jan started to explain. “First, acknowledge there may not be a solution.”

“But there has to be,” Mary objected. “My reputation as a miracle worker is on the line here.”

“That’s probably part of your problem,” Jan said. “You’re forcing yourself to find an answer, despite all evidence being one doesn’t exist. You might as well go around saying that the sky should be purple. Until you acknowledge the reality of your situation, you will have a hard time changing it.”

“So, you’re saying that I have so much emotion wrapped up around being unable to solve my problem,” Tommy said, “that I can’t find the solution I know must be there?”

“Not exactly,” Jan corrected. “I’m saying that, until you accept that you might not find a solution, you will miss aspects of your reality. Forcing yourself to find a solution hides information that suggests a solution may not exist. That hidden information may be just what you need to solve your problem.”

Mary nodded thoughtfully. “It’s like I’ve lost my keys, and I’m insisting that keeping the lights on is the only way to find them. Whereas, if I acknowledged that I’m not finding them with the lights on, I might try turning the lights off. Which would make my glow-in-the-dark keyring visible, and I’d find them in a trice.”

“That’s a really good analogy, Mary,” Tommy said appreciatively. “I get it now.”

2) Take a tiny step

“Thanks,” Mary said. “So, Jan, acknowledging our reality is the first step to solving our problems. What’s the second step?”

“Take a tiny step.”

“’Take a tiny step?’ That’s your magical solution? But that’s the whole problem. I don’t know what else to do.”

“There’s always a tiny step we can take. If you’re unsure where to go, any direction is fine. Just take a tiny step and discover what happens.”

“What if I’ve taken every step I can think of?”

“Have you disassembled your computer, built a new one, and then taken a fresh look at your code?”

“No, of course not,” Tommy said with a snort. “That won’t gain me anything.”

“Then you haven’t taken every possible step.”

Tommy opened his mouth to object, then he shut it, considering. “Okay, I get your point. Yes, there are many more steps I could take. I haven’t thrown my code out and started from scratch. I haven’t explained what I’m trying to do to anyone else. Especially to anyone who isn’t a developer. I haven’t asked whether we even need to write this code at all.”

“Oh! That’s a step I haven’t taken,” exclaimed Mary.

“Asked whether you even need to write your code at all?” Tommy asked confusedly.

“Yes! Kind of. I haven’t asked why we are building this project I’m unable to schedule. Maybe there’s a better way to provide the value to our customers. Maybe we aren’t the right people to provide that value. Maybe our customers don’t need it when they think they do. All sorts of questions are pouring in now.”

3) Notice what results

“Okay, Jan,” Tommy said. “Facing up to reality is the first step, and taking a tiny step is, um, the second step. What’s the third and final step?”

“Allowing yourself to notice what results, and then move back into the first step.”

“Isn’t that four steps?” Tommy half teased, half objected.

“Maybe,” Jan agreed. “I’m happy to make it four steps if that makes you feel better.”

“So, step three is allowing myself to discover what happens when I take that tiny step,” Mary mused. “Isn’t that another way to say I am accepting my reality?”

“It is,” Jan confirmed. “And that’s why I call this a single step rather than two separate ones. Because the third step is really just moving back to the first one.”

“My brain hurts,” Tommy said, rubbing his head. “Or maybe it’s full. Or both.”

Jan and Mary both laughed. Tommy made a face at them.

Find your way out of any quandary

“I don’t fully grok what you’re saying, yet,” Tommy continued. “But, I think I get the gist: Being angry that I can’t find a solution prevents me from finding a solution. One way out of that predicament is to acknowledge a solution may not exist. That reframes things for me and helps me accept my reality. Then, all I need to do is take a tiny step. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or corny it seems. Taking that tiny step will give me information I didn’t have before. The more I can accept what that tells me, and use it to guide my next tiny step, the more ideas I will explore and the more likely I’ll find my way out of my quandary.”

“Makes sense to me,” Mary declared.

“That is a great summary,” Jan said. “If that’s you not fully grokking this yet, I’m eager to hear how you put it once you feel you do fully grok it.”

“Thanks,” Tommy said. “I’m curious how it will change, too.”

“Thanks again, you two, for helping me clean up my spilled coffee,” Jan said.

“We were happy to help,” said Mary. “You’ve helped us so much today, I’m glad we were able to return the favor.”

“Yes, thank you,” agreed Tommy. “Now, how about some foosball before I take apart my computer?”

“You’re on,” Mary and Jan said in unison.

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