Avoiding problem-overwhelm in the time of COVID-19

By Carl Heise

Psychologists have encouraged us to cut ourselves slack during this strange time of virus vigilance, reassuring that it would be unusual if we did not struggle to maintain our focus and productivity.

Ironically it is now, during the coronavirus response, that we need to be our sharpest, especially if we work in the health sector. For those of us in the business world, the complexity of the challenges we face and the rapid rate of change we are dealing with means we are facing our own version of a code blue.

We need to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed by complex problems, or if it’s too late that we have a way to step back and find the big picture again. The costs of overwhelm range from inefficiency, to inaction or worse omissions or negligence.

Drawing it out

My most trusted tool for tackling overwhelm amid complexity is to pin down the by drawing it. I have no doubt that many or most of you reading this will already use this technique regularly. But it is worth revisiting the thinking behind it to remember its worth and ensure you draw with intention.

I have outlined the most important elements of the drawing process below:

1) Illustrate the complexity
Draw the problem on a single page. Break it down. Find the component parts. Then draw it again. If you can articulate the complexity of the problem as a metaphor, diagram, or process you can start to get a grip on it. Explain it to someone else, then iterate. Take your drawing away, refine it and then re-present it. Use less words in your presentation the second time.

2) Embrace the open-ended, within limits
You can’t solve an open problem by trying to close it down, but the act of committing it to paper will help limit the scope a little; the page is of a certain size, the colours are limited. Of course, the problem is bigger and more open than your A4 picture, but it is a start.

3) Network your drawings
Try drawing on fragments. Use index cards or post-its and different colours, stickers, and shapes. Name the problem and its parts. Wherever you can, use numbers or shapes instead of words. Group and connect the elements of the problem.

4) Keep things moving:
When you have a wall or table covered in index cards you can move them. You can ask “What if?” You can anticipate and alter your diagram or metaphor to fit the changes that are happening or may happen.

Drawing for the win

Drawing out your problem will help reduce the risk of overwhelm and minimise the chance of you missing a trick in your solution design.

Please feel free to share any problem definition drawings you have with me – COVID-19-related or otherwise!