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Pursue the critical path
posted by admin on 13/09/06

Solving multiple interrelated problem requires sequencing them correctly.

The relative importance and odds of various considerations do not always point directly to a correct answer, especially when problems are nested within problems. To achieve the best overall solution in these situations, you must decide which problem to solve first, second, and so on.

In my first litigation assignment, I had the good fortune to work with a wise thinker named Gordon Hampton, one of the founders of the law firm where I eventually became a partner. After spending a good hour describing the details of a very complicated case, Gordon instructed me to “frame the issues” and gave me several days to accomplish the task.

The next morning I walked into his office ahead of schedule and proudly presented my list of issues. Glancing at my ten items, Gordon graciously handed them back with an understanding smile. I was not the first rookie lawyer trained by Gordon Hampton nor would I be the last. “Too many,” he said without further elaboration. I took another stab at it and the next day arrived at his office with three issues. This time, Gordon looked at may list with some approval, although he reworded my statements and penciled in a fourth issue.

Gordon then handed the completed list to me, saying, “There, I think we’ve covered all the bases.” Relieved to finish the project, I stood to walk out of the office. “wait,” he said, “we’ re not finished. Now comes the most important part.” Gordon reached for the list, leaned back in his chair, and looked the document over from top to bottom. After several minutes of intense thinking, he removed an old pair of long-bladed scissors from his top drawer and cut the page into four pieces. He then asked me to piece our list back together with the issues in the most useful sequence. “We’ll start at the top of the list,”he said. “Don’t change anything without checking first with me.”

When Gordon Hampton had scissored the issues and asked me to put them back together, I’d assumed he wanted them arranged in logical order from top to bottom. However, I soon discovered he had something else in mind: he wanted me to sequence the issues strategically in the order they should be litigated. Gordon rearranged my order and placed the most crucial issue last in sequence. It was what lawyers call a “case breaker,” an issue he frankly wanted to delay, one that spelled certain defeat if lost. Gordon wanted to go after easier-to-win and less risky preliminary matters first in an effort to avoid letting the outcome of the case turn on the harder-to-win, more difficult issues. His sequencing made perfect sense once his strategy came clear. As in warfare, smart generals pick their fights so that the sequence of engagements provides the critical path to ultimate victory. In this way, they can loose a few battles and still win the war.

The written sequence Gordon and I completed became our strategic map throughout the remainder of the case. Although it required revision from time to time, the document served as one of our most effective management tools in litigating the case to a successful conclusion.

Complex thinking tasks such as Gordon and I faced often involve multiple interrelated problems. Sequencing them correctly requires careful consideration of the urgency, gravity, and logical fit of each, something Gordon spent many years teaching me how to do well.

Decisions on a single issue can open and close doors leading to others. Computer programmers cal these “logical gates.” The first logical gate confronting Apollo 13 involved the command module. Gene Kranz had only 15 short minutes in which to decide whether and how to power down the module. If he failed at the outset to solve that pivotal problem correctly, his subsequence options would have been reduced to a series of extremely unpleasant and sad efforts at comforting three courageous men in the final moments of their lives. Knowing which problem to solve first spelled the difference between life and death.

By Charles W. Mc Coy, Jr.  author of the book : "Why didn't I think of That?"

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