Engineers are gifted one of the most incredible insights that we as humans can discover throughout our existence. This secret reveals itself during the many years you will spend studying as a student and developing yourself as a professional. It relates only to the problem solving process that you as an engineer will call upon more than any other skill. It is the one ability that will put more dollar signs into your bank account and allow you to feel a sense of mastery that is difficult for others to comprehend. Since graduating, it is the one aspect of my development that allows me to progress and take control of my professional and personal life. When it comes to problems, there are only two types in our modern world; the significant and the insignificant. If you would like to achieve over 500 facebook friends and give your life the meaning it deserves, your situation falls within the insignificant category of problems. Alternatively, you may have aspirations to solve our current energy crisis by mass producing iron mans arc reactor power supply for the population. Tackling this problem entitles you to significant status (not to mention geek status as well!).
Whichever category your problem falls within, we can all recognise that problems are simply unavoidable. Financial problems, personal problems, money problems and people problems are constantly imposing upon us all. I took control of this reality by learning the process of breaking down a problem to the deepest level possible and solving it in completion. Through an extensive period of challenging myself through trial and error, I discovered the one true secret to effective problem solving. I didn’t read it in a book or hear it from someone’s mouth. Instead, it suddenly flashed into my thought pattern one helpless night in my bedroom. The reason for every poor decision I had made throughout my development was due to the fact that I was emotionally attached to the problem. I know what you’re thinking; “Hang on Ed, since when do engineers feel emotions?” Well believe it or not, we as engineers are as emotionally involved in our work and lives as much as anyone else. Only when I became aware of my emotional involvement was I able to manage it and use it to my advantage. I then re-defined the traditional problem solving process in a way that allowed me to know when I was making progress toward a solution or getting caught in my emotional needs. I will share this 4 step process with you so you will know exactly how to approach your problems with the most effective mindset and strategy.
1. Analysing (observing, not seeing)
The first step in the process is to observe. One irony you will encounter as your progress through your life as a student and then as a professional (whether in engineering or not) will be the biased viewpoints you receive from people. Everyone believes that they are objective and offering you the unbiased version of their thoughts. In reality they are being objective through their own lens of experiences, failures and successes as every rise and fall that we experience in life is determined by our emotion. The objectivity we want to strive for is one that removes emotion and the past experiences that we have survived. When you consider all the variables and causes in a problem unemotionally, you begin to observe what is actually happening without the personal bias of how it affects you. From a truly objective viewpoint, you are able to understand and deal with clients, colleagues and even managers in a simple and less stressful way. More importantly, you will begin to free yourself from any limiting viewpoints. This enables you to take clear actions that are relevant to the current situation and not be swayed by something that exists only in your head.
2. Planning (strategizing, not hoping)
The next step and most time consuming is the planning phase. Planning is especially important when it relates to a complex project involving large amounts of people and money. Effective planning allows you to identify the stages which are most important and the logical sequence of actions required to get to each stage. Without planning it is easy to get caught up in irrelevant tasks and issues, causing eternal frustration and confusion. One of the most valuable lessons I learned during my time involved with the Formula SAE program was that you must be smart with the time you have. It is common sense to know that it is impossible to succeed in anything if you do not have enough time to achieve it. Yet we constantly delude ourselves that we have plenty of time. Planning is the tool to take control of your limited timeframe and make it work for you. In my experience the most effective engineers are acutely aware of their strict timelines and make simple, easy to execute plans to get to their outcome. If there isn’t time to do it, do something else. Don’t be fooled into hoping that it will work out, because it probably won’t.
3. Deciding (Taking action, not waiting)
Actually deciding to do something should be the most exciting but is often the most difficult part of the problem solving process. I believe this is due to some missing pieces of information that you must deal with at the time of any decision. Unfortunately, or fortunately, you will be forced to make a call when there is doubt, pressure and an unclear future. Having the confidence to actually make these decisions comes from completing the previous steps (analysing, planning) and from the experience of making a few bad decisions. Yes, that’s right, the easiest way to learn the art of decision making is to make poor decisions. The classic example is the number of students who decide to delay their study until the night before an exam after a semester (or trimester) of doing absolutely nothing. The incredible amount of stress that occurs as a result of waiting until the last minute is not the best habit to develop. In most cases the outcome is failure and this is a good thing. I bet you would have decided on what you’re going to do the next time you have an exam.
At this point in the process, the doubt and fear of your mind may really begin to sabotage you. It comes in the form of thoughts such as, “so-and-so said it’s impossible”, “I have never seen it done that way”, “It might not work”, “I am not smart enough to figure it out”. These thoughts stem from our emotional insecurities and usually have no basis in reality. If the decision you want to make is logical and feels right then go for it. In most cases, making a poor decision is usually better than making no decision. Giving in to your doubts becomes a habit that snowballs over time and eventually paralyses you from deciding on anything. If the worst case happens and you fail, at least you know what to do next time.
4. Re-Assessing (Honesty, not delusion)
The final step of the process is completely over-looked by the incompetent people who never seem to learn from their errors. You on the other hand, must always re-assess what you are doing during and after the problem solving process. This is a skill that will come with practice – start by questioning yourself while you are solving problems i.e. is this equation relevant? Why? Will this action get me closer to my objectives? Re-assessing allows you to either push forward with confidence, or change the current strategy before it’s too late and you are out of time (or out of a job). The best approaches to re-assessing come in the form of progress reports from managers, one-on-one conversations with colleagues and late nights sitting quietly in your bedroom with a pad and a pen. The key factor here is to be completely honest and open. Bullshiting to yourself may work out once or twice, but it will eventually bite you. Hard.
These are the four fundamental steps of the process that is taught in most engineering and business circles; modified to remove our emotions from the process.You’re emotional investment in the problem is the deciding factor. All that you are obliged to do is simply remove your need to protect your ego and instead focus on all of the details and intricacies of the problem. You must deal with the problem as it exists, in its rawness and purity. Expect that tough decisions are better for your development in the long run and dealing with them will put you in the elite category of engineers and people.
Now that you know the secret, what will you do?