The problem solving delusion
The fields of Applied Science including Engineering provides its students with some incredible insights and understanding of the most complex phenomena in the Universe. There exists one aspect of this understanding that is most valuable to all human endeavours. It is the realisation that within the confines of your own mind you have the tools to solve the most complex and seemingly impossible problems that challenge us as a species. When you feel confident in your ability to deal with problems and solve them with the full weight of your energy, life becomes more fulfilling.
As a professional, learning to problem solve effectively is the one ability that will put more dollar signs into your bank account and allow you to direct your career and your learning towards the area that most interests you. Since graduating, it is the one aspect of my development that has allowed me to progress and gain a deeper insight of the World.
But not all problems are worth the stress and energy that they demand from you. Too often in my personal life I have found myself becoming stuck on those that were insignificant to my health, friendships & sense of worth. Thankfully, as engineers we are often forced to focus on problems that are practically more significant and affect not only our own lives but also the lives of the general community. Once gaining some confidence in this area we then also have the ability to instead seek out significant problems that trouble us or excite us, with an energy that is heated by our own desire. 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 ultimate boss status in our society (not to mention geek status as well!).
To get you started on a path to problem solving mastery, the four fundamental steps outlined below provide a comprehensive and simple framework.
1. Analysing (Observe – Dissect – Reframe)
The first step in the process is to observe very deeply. One irritating aspect 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 is biased, including yourself, but your goal when analysing a problem is to remove as much of this as possible and to see the problem in its rawness and objectivity. 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 move past your sense of pride & anxiety. From a more objective viewpoint, you are able to understand and deal with problems in a more direct and clear way. This enables you to take actions that are relevant to the current situation and not be swayed by something that has been exaggerated by your fears or false beliefs.
2. Planning (Strategize – Clarify – Forecast)
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. A failed project is likely if the potential setbacks are not anticipated and the ability of your resources is overestimated. 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 to completion, do something else. Don’t be fooled into hoping that it will work out, because it probably won’t.
3. Deciding (Consider – Act – Follow through)
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. 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. You may be able to get by in some situations, but for most students most of the time the outcome will be ugly. Putting yourself under pressure is a great tactic but not if your starting from a base level of 0.
Its common during the decision making stage that extreme doubt may really begin to take control of 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 are usually exaggerated. If the decision you want to make is grounded in logic and feels right then go for it. In most cases, making a poor decision is usually better than making no decision. The opposite, to give in to your doubt can become 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 are better prepared for next time.
4. Re-Assessing (Consider – Reflect – Adjust)
The final step of the process is often overlooked from a strategic viewpoint. Just quickly discussing what should be done better is not enough. You must actively change any process or thought pattern or habit that did not work. This is a skill that will come with practice and can also be used in combination with the other three stages. 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. The key factor in reflection is to be completely honest and open with yourself. Bullshitting to yourself may pacify your anxiety but will slaughter you in the long run.
These four fundamentals are taught in most engineering and business circles although many of them neglect the most important factor in the success of this process; removing your emotions and ego. You’re emotional investment in the process is the deciding factor. You must remain emotionally driven to push through the frustrations that arise during complex problem solving but you must follow the process with a cold detachment. Don’t take shortcuts because your ego tells you that your brilliance will magically solve everything. Don’t become filled with anger or lose your head when your first attempts fail. Don’t drown in the fear that tries to protect you from making a wrong choice. Don’t allow yourself to be deluded. You must deal with the problem as it exists, in its rawness and purity.
Your worth as an engineer and person is not affected whether you eventually solve the problem or not. Your process may be weak or your definition of the problem may be unclear or you have not yet developed enough skill to find the root cause. But all of this can be improved with persistence and energy.
So detach yourself and keep attacking the problem.