Break it down! A method for eliminating overwhelm and creating momentum.

Mar 08, 2020

"Eh, we have these big things we need to discuss that have stalled out.  When we talk about taking the family vacation to Florida, the finances, the trip, and the hassle keep us from making any decisions," a client of mine said recently.

Have you ever felt the same about a big decision or some other overwhelming issue in your life?  Have you ever been on a team where multiple people needed to agree before you moved forward, only to have two folks disagree and hold up the whole process?  Or have you ever had a conversation where you keep talking past the other person?

I know these situations have happened to me a ton of times in my life.   When I was a professional computer programmer, we would often have a nebulous set of requirements and problems to solve to get the dang software to work.  

Take this business situation from a previous client.  The ask was, "I want to take all the inventory in the warehouse and store, and have a live count of all the inventory at all times." 

Ambiguous requirements happen so frequently in software that we have a standard solution for this type of issue, called functional decomposition.  Functional decomposition takes a big idea or problem and breaks it down into it's smallest solvable steps.  And it's highly effective.

In the inventory example, let's assume we are starting to build a new system.  To break down the inventory tracking system, we need smaller problems to solve.  We would need a way to scan inventory at locations.  We would need a way to scan items out of locations, and we would need a way to track and update where the items are in a building.  These three problems are a bit more manageable and set us up to break things down into even smaller parts.

This process also works for overwhelming decisions or decisions needing multiple people's approvals.

How would you break down the vacation example above for my client?  

If you wanted to go on vacation, what smaller decisions or problems would you need to solve?  Maybe he could break it down into financial and logistical problems.  Can they afford to go right now, or do they need to save some money?  If they save money, can the family can go as initially thought, or do they need more time to save funds?  Logistically, what are the hurdles for traveling with two young kids?  Is that a deal-breaker, or is there a better way to travel with the kiddos?  

By systematically breaking down the topic, issue, or decision, you can get into a problem-solving mode.  And if a critical part can't be solved, or the mini-decisions lean one way or the other, then you can then make a better-informed decision.

So is there a big decision, big problem, or tough conversation you need to get moving forward (or you've been avoiding) right now?  

How would you break it down?  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you break it down to get moving forward!

  1. Break it down till you get stuck.  Take big issues and break them down into medium-sized problems.  Take the medium-sized problems and break them down into smaller issues, and so on.  The problem or choice should feel bite-sized and achievable.  Part of the art of decomposition is getting to the point when you feel motivated to tackle the task.
  2. Enlist the other vested parties to break things down.  People commit to what they create, and your perspective might not be the full perspective.  Once you have all the ideas, it's worth going through as a group what's critical for moving forward.
  3. Know your priorities.  Ranking and prioritizing what you want can help prevent getting into arguments for the sake of argument.  On teams, I've seen times when people are going at it, only to realize neither party cares about what decision gets made.
  4. Quit if you find a deal-breaker.  If you focus and identify the critical issues/decisions/problems, then you can quickly figure out if it's worth spending time figuring everything out.  In the vacation example, if there was no way it would be financially feasible, it's not worth talking through how to travel with the kids because it's already been decided.