Potatoes on Mars, and When Not to Use Duct Tape

So we‘re sitting there watching 3 space-orientated spectaculars, on a theme which we described as NASA’s greatest mistakes in chronological order as portrayed on film, and my partner and I start describing NASA’s approach to problem solving – which we refer to as ‘Potatoes on Mars’. This leads onto a further philosophical discussion on our further addendum on problem solving in life – which we call ‘When Not to Use Duct Tape’. After much laughter, amusement, life experience and a bottle of wine… this article was born.

Problem Solving

Problem solving is one of life’s biggest challenges regardless of what you do, what challenges you face, and what your goal is. Nothing in life, and I truly mean nothing, in life is perfect, nothing works out the way we originally planned it. We have to work out how to problem solve effectively if we want to achieve our goals (big and small). It’s why very successful people regularly say things like “Focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination” (Chris Hadfield – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth). It’s also because of all the twists and turns and unexpected events in life (read Black Swan for a new perspective on this) that life is so complex, interesting, challenging and unpredictable. Life is full of change and, from my experience, dealing with change is something that many people struggle with.

Our first approach to problem solving has been NASA inspired; when a problem, or six, come along then it’s time for Potatoes on Mars. Problems are like buses, they tend to come along in groups not one at a time in a nice predictable, planned schedule. Potatoes on Mars covers the following approaches… most of which are described by Chris Hadfield better than I can explain:

  • “I think… that [reactive]… instinct has been trained out of me and another set of responses has been trained in, represented by three words: warn, gather, work. “Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen.”
    • When six problems come along at once you work out which one is the most important, warn people, gather the necessary information and then work through solving the problem one at a time – not six at once.
  • “Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.”
    • So learn, learn, think ahead, listen to other’s people’s experience, seek advice, ask others to come up with ideas, and learn more. The more you know, the more experiences you have to draw from the better you’ll have the skills and knowledge to deal with a problem that comes along.
  • “Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.”
    • Think through a journey and work out areas that might be problematic, and considering ways to sort them. This is why agile thinking includes so many different ways to bring this into our thoughts and practices “inspect and adapt”, “retrospective/futurespective”, ROAM’ing risks in SAFe, systems thinking etc.

Potatoes on Mars

So how do those three philosophies draw together to become ‘Potatoes on Mars’? If you watch (or read/listen – as it’s a film, book and audiobook) The Martian you will see Mark Watney being stranded on Mars without communication to earth and with a number of different problems. He takes each problem and works through it methodically:

  • 1st he fixes his helmet so he doesn’t lose oxygen,
  • 2nd fixes his bleeding wound,
  • 3rd works out a food supply,
  • 4th works out a communication strategy,
  • 5th works out a way home.

Mark also anticipates some of these problems and uses experiments to determine the best strategy to resolve them – like how to drive the Rover over long distances before undertaking the risky journey. As Mark successfully survives growing potatoes on Mars and resolves each problem so that he can ultimately return to earth, then why would his problem-solving approach not work for the less dramatic issues we suffer. Okay, so The Martian is a theoretical story, but the approaches taken are those used by NASA. Putting Potatoes on Mars is an approach that to put into practice is hard work, it requires us to retrain our brains to instead of reacting with instinct and gut, to take a calm approach and only worrying about the problem in front of us, then when that it resolved doing the next one. This takes a lot… and I do mean a lot… of practice before it seems much more natural.

Take a calm approach and only worrying about the problem in front of us, then when that it resolved do the next one.

When Not to Use Duct Tape

Once you’ve successfully mastered Potatoes on Mars, the next philosophy is When Not to Use Duct Tape. What about the many colloquialisms relating to putting in place temporary fixes to our own disadvantage? So many that it’s disheartening… “papering over the cracks”, “no time to do it right once, but time to do it wrong twice”, “sweep it under the carpet” – I think you get the idea.

Sometimes we think we have to fix the problem in front of us at that moment; we exert all our energy in the here and now, we are so scared of failure we make sure it doesn’t happen. Even, and sometimes especially, when we’re dependent upon someone else to fix, or take responsibility for it. In the last case this often ends up with us not trusting someone to do their job, and we take on the additional responsibility to do it ourselves to ensure that failure doesn’t happen. This can become a vicious cycle, spending all our energy fire-fighting issues instead of resolving the long-term problems, and taking on more responsibility attempting to avoid failure. No matter whether it’s in our direct control or not.

This path leads to exhaustion… at some point in the future, either you or your team will break. Or you become a neutral force as you join the apathetic masses of people who accept the madness of the problems – as this is just how “X” is, and you lackadaisically encourage new recruits to join you in this philosophy with.

How can you stop yourself upon realising you’re on the pathway to despair? You learn “When Not to Use Duct Tape”. If you’ve ever watched MythBusters you know just about anything can be fixed with (or made from) duct tape – including creating a boat.

Anyway, for this philosophy you need to learn to:

  • inspect the situation;
  • recognise you decide, in that moment, to very deliberately and openly, not use any temporary measures to hide or reduce the problem;
  • let the broken thing keep on being broken;
  • and, most importantly, let it fail.

By letting it fail you can create the necessary sense of urgency that is required for change, and, you have the energy available to work on creating the proper solution to the problem – whether that be a using a new path, a new tool or a new skill to get to your goal. It could even be deciding that the goal is no longer of value.

Deliberately decide to let it fail, so you have the energy and sense of urgency to create the necessary change.

Does “Potatoes on Mars” and “When Not to Use Duct Tape” prevent us from experiencing all of the same problems we’ve had before – no not always. Does it mean we don’t make mistakes – no; does it mean we don’t fail – nope we still fail, sometimes even more often. But what it does mean is that we survive the journey, make more progress towards our goals and we have more energy on that journey for the bigger problems we face. I hope my philosophies have given you something to think about, and might help you on your journey… and thank you to the lovely Chris Hadfield for all of the inspiration and advice, he has helped me break my frontiers and find new ones.

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