It’s just a ‘Tunneling Problem’

A fun way to tackle big problems and achieve big results.

One of my favorite things to do as a kid on my summer holidays was to build sand castles at the beach.

If I was lucky (and brave), I might even make a friend or two to make quick work of it. If not, I’d toil away on my own until I either had something to be proud of, the sun set, or, as kids do, lost interest and jumped in the water.

A kid’s basic sand castle doesn’t really require many skills. It’s really just digging and piling up sand, molding and chiseling, or tunneling. If you mastered those three areas (and the sand wasn’t too gravelly) success was assured.

Tunneling was a particularly skill-testing task because not only were you dealing with sand whose quality varied from beach to beach (anyone remember hitting those stones?), but it also involved some planning and goal setting. If you didn’t pay attention to what the other hand (or side) was doing, it was easy to miss the mark, or worse – dig too high and break the tunnel or bridge altogether (who doesn’t remember the worker outrage when that happened?).

After much sun-baked toil, it was always thrilling to see those first few fingers break through from the other side. In those intrepid moments, I’d feel like an international astronaut meeting another country’s space-farer for the first time. It felt big. Important.

And it is from those early playful days that I learned that it takes a little faith to keep on digging, even when we don’t see immediate progress happening.

A few decades and sand castles later, I’ve come to realize that most big problems in life are what I call ‘tunneling problems.’

The big things, the worthwhile things, the things that don’t always have a visible end in sight, or that you want to achieve and sustain – take the same skills as a sand castle tunnel. That is: a simple goal you can visualize and achieve; multiple tools; the ability to start with the end in mind; stubborn persistence and of course faith. The more of these things that you have at the ready, the more likely you are to succeed.

Breaking it down, life’s tunneling problems require:

  • A simple goal you can visualize and achieve. This means ‘We will do X by Y time and it will look like Z – AND we can confidently do X because we’ve done something similar before.’ It’s also important to note that if something is big, it’s usually better to achieve it with sustained baby steps (as the AGILE call ‘Sprints’) than struggling until burn out – demoralizing all involved.
  • Multiple (pre-planned) tools. Just like a tunnel at the beach, you need to switch modes when the going gets tough so you can keep going – even (and especially) if it’s at a slower speed, and that means using different tools, be it a reed on the sand, or a custom macro in Excel. This will keep you inspired and engaged and turn those sneaky blocking stones into exciting opportunities – because you expected them and have taken the time to have the tools (be it tactile or cognitive) to compensate. Now tool planning and finding can be it’s own procrastinatory hell – so let me just say this – the tools you seek when starting a job should only be chosen if they will be used and not if they could be used, otherwise you’ll never launch – or dig.
  • Starting with the end in mind. Just like digging from the other side of the tunnel, this thinking allows you to work back to the front and really get clear on the steps you need to get there.
  • Stubborn persistence. This means you have to commit and dig with your all, not allowing yourself to get distracted by the next sand castle nearby until this one is done. While we now call this ‘bright shiny object’ syndrome, distraction by novelty is something humans have always been plagued with – we’ve just gotten better at it.
  • Faith (the passion type) means you (and your team, if there is one) have to get really excited about what success means so you can dig with gusto and stay inspired to do so – even when you can’t see the end. That beginning emotional state is a critical domino you need to push to get the momentum up and it is something you need to revisit if you’re going to break through to the other side. Some leaders unable to reignite the initial launch enthusiasm later on resort to anger and threats (we’ve all read about those), but research shows that authentically celebrating small victories and encouraging good traits goes much further. Likewise, modern tools that provide feedback (eg. Noom, Jira, Asana) are useful because they allow you to more quickly celebrate success and course correct when your proverbial shovel hits the sand wrong.1

Using aspects of the Tunneling approach, my clients and I have had great success pushing through seemingly unsurmountable barriers. Take for example something as difficult as weight. Attacked with a single variable (eg. diet or exercise) and the results may vary. This is because there’s too much inertia of habit to overcome. But, when we tackle the same problem with better and smaller goals, multiple tools and approaches (the more the better), think back from the end (for planning), persist stubbornly and just have faith – what was once impossible simply becomes difficult. But then here’s the magic … what is difficult can be learned to be tolerated. And then … if it can be tolerated, ultimately it can be enjoyed (if you’re creative enough). When you can find joy in the (initially) painful journey, really engage with it and optimize it, it stops being a pain and your mindset (and lifestyle) will change forever.

It just starts with seeing a tunnel and having the passion to break through.


  1. A wonder more kids don’t use Agile Scrum and Slack at the beach?

An executive trainer, speaker and strategic futurist, Boyan serves as Kyosei's CTO and Creative Director — flittering between projects like a hummingbird on NZT-48. Come hell or high water, his non-fiction and fiction will be on Amazon in the near future.

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