home about contact internet marketing book twitter business book archives subscribe

Tunneling Your Way To Complex Problem Solving

It’s old wisdom but it bears repeating: the big problems in life are best solved one step at a time. You don’t even have to have a detailed solution right away, but can build up to it from general options.

That’s the gist of the “tunneling” method of complex problem solving described here. The idea is to start by describing the current problem, writing down the desired resolution, and then exploring your options and building upon them. The entire approach uses what some people call continuous improvement, incremental change, stepwise refinement or even Kaizen. They all amount to doing things one step at a time. [Note: my use of the term tunneling is not the same as Ben Popken’s use in The Consumerist, when talking about how to move to NYC and stay sane, but you could use visual tunneling described here to map out the solutions he provides.]

You can use this approach to solve very complex problems, starting with partial solutions. As you accumulate more information or additional options, you can expand your problem solving map accordingly.


This approach to problem solving is very visual. I’ve used the MindJet MindManager Pro mind mapping software (some alternatives: FreeMind, Mindomo, Mindmeister, Comapping), though you can pretty much use any sort of diagramming application (MS Visio, Smartdraw, Gliffy). Many of these apps either have free trials or free options. FreeMind is entirely free and multi-platform.

Problem Definition Process

  1. Define your problem. This is your “start” state.
  2. Define your ideal solution state. This is your “end” state.
  3. Draw two nodes, “Start” and “End”, and sketch a path between them. (See the top half of the diagram above.)
  4. List all the solution options for your problem that you can think of. Do not rule anything out just yet, no matter how absurd. Brainstorm if you have to, talk to people, research. Spend as much time as you need (within the timeframe that you have to solve a problem.) Keep in mind that a “solution option” can simply be a few words suggesting a solution. You do not yet have to come up with a complete plan.
  5. Incorporate these solution options into a revised version of your problem map.

Here’s an example of the type of map you’ll end up with:

Tunneling Process

Now comes the “tunneling” part, as shown above. You have a basic solution map at this point, which is the “big picture, ” focusing on the end result. Now focus on the small picture, the details. How can you get to your desired result from where you are now? Which options seem most feasible? Do you know what each option requires?

Use whatever techniques you have in your problem solving arsenal to explore each option: brainstorming, visual thinking and diagramming, critical thinking, idea generation, etc. From this point until you decide on a final solution, you’re going to explore each option, adding in greater details, tunneling your way to a full solution plan.

The gist is that you do not know which option is best yet. That’s what you’re exploring. Add increasingly more specific details to each option in your problem map as you go. If an option is in itself complex, recursively apply the same approach to it as to the entire problem. Break it down into sub-problems and sub-options. Create a separate map for an option if necessary. The overall result is similar to a decision tree, but if you’re “tunneling” your way to a solution.

Here’s a look at the type of map you’ll have now:

Each solution option has a different level of detail, though any of this could change. This is an organic process. As one option very obviously becomes nonfeasible, eliminate it. Add new options if they occur to you. Add option details as you decide upon them. Draw diagrams, add charts or images if they help you. Break all problems and options down to their most “atomic” level.

This iterative, visual approach to problem solving is far less intimidating than mentally trying to solve complex problems. Each step of the refinement process gives you small “wins,” motivating you to keep exploring.

On the other hand, the mental approach to complex problem solving usually becomes overwhelming, making it far easier to give up. Even simply writing down your problem and options is an advantage over a mental approach. The power gained from a visual approach to problem solving should not be overlooked. A visual approach helps stimulate both the logical and creative facets of your mind.


Up until this point, there’s no mention about what type of problem you can solve using this tunneling method. The answer: pretty much any type of complex life and work problem. Though since life problems tend to take longer to solve, at least in my experience, there’s a lot more time to collect and explore options and filter out what will and will not work. An example tunnel diagram is shown below, which for personal reasons have the details blurred out. It is “in progress,” and still has to be fleshed out some more, but the ultimate goal is starting to show a few clear option pathways. It should show you the essence of the tunneling method, visually speaking.

Final Thoughts

The tunneling method can be a valuable tool in your problem solving arsenal. There’s a great deal of room for flexibility to apply the methods you prefer to use, so use it as a basis for solving the more complex problems in life and work.

How long you take for the entire problem solving process really depends on how complex the problem is and how much time you have. I use this approach for very complex problems that might take 9-12 months to completely solve. Shorter-term problems can be solved the same way.


A tremendous resource for visual thinking and modeling is at Idiagram. Start at the home page and explore the rich collection of visual models, and try to absorb some of the processes described there. One section to focus on is The Art of Complex Problem Solving, which has some impresive visual aids.

One Comment

  1. Debi K Says:

    Excellent examples of useful problem solving techniques~ Thanks for the mention of Gliffy!

    debik at gliffy dot come

Leave a Comment