Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Problem Solving

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend an excellent workshop on Problem Solving given by Peter de Jager. Myself coming from a Mathematics and Computer Science background I have sat through many lectures on problem solving techniques, how to deconstruct a problem into its’ component parts, how to formalize statements using first-order logic, etc. Although I enjoy those subjects, I was pleasantly surprised that Peter took a very different approach to his seminar. He took a hands on approach by giving us dozens of physical and mental problems throughout the day to challenge us while illustrating specific points about the process of problem solving. In the end what we took away from the session didn’t include specific tools on how to solve a type of problem, it was a deeper understanding of problems in general, why they can occur, and new perspectives on how to solve problems and pre-emptively warding them off before they can start.

The key to being a more effective problem solver in everyday life lies in understanding ourselves and human nature in general. The problem is literally one of perspective.

This is certainly not a new idea and our culture is littered with references attempting to express this fact “Thinking outside the box”, “Can’t see the forest for the trees”, “Too close to the problem - What’s the bigger picture?” even the Socratic’ Method outlined in Plato’s dialogues in the 5th century BC is all about perspective and that the key to understanding a problem is to change your perspective, question your assumptions, modify your view of it.

One of the key tenants is understanding that you bring a lifetime of preconceptions with you when you are looking at a problem and questioning those preconceptions, modifying them is a fundamental skill.

Over the course of the day Peter led us through examples and problems of perspective, with tidbits of wisdom, real-world examples, common misconceptions, and traps to avoid.

A tool to help with problem solving is understanding labels. Labels are an essential tool for communication, when I refer to “a nail” it immediately conjures up all the things that a nail is and what it is used for. However when we need to solve a problem, labels can be a hindrance because they come loaded with preconceptions. Sometimes we are so locked into that perspective that we cannot think of other ways a nail can be seen or used. If I called a nail an “awl”, or an “icepick”, or a “model train bridge support strut” or even “sharp metal cylinder with a lip” it suddenly becomes an entirely different object. Labels are powerful, and sometimes we need to understand all the properties and attributes of an object independent of its’ label.

My favourite example that was given of this power was the story of a group of Christian people attempting and failing to hang a small crucifix on a wall with a nail. During this process they tried every conceivable method and object at their disposal to secure the nail to the wall, except for the single object that they had that was the same size, weight, and approximate shape of a hammer. The cross. To this group of people the crucifix had such importance, such value that it was impossible for them to conceive of it as a hammer on their own.

The last topic I will bring up was arguably the most important and useful in everyday life of everything that was covered. Consider the statement “People are resistant to change” do you agree or don’t you? It’s something we hear often, people don’t like change, change is frightening, there’s even a whole management discipline called “change management”. But is it true?

Make yourself a list of checkmarks for every time you have:
  • 1 for each time you’ve gone to a new school
  • 1 for each time you’ve taken a trip more than 1 hour away
  • 1 for each time you’ve gotten a new pet
  • 1 for each time you’ve moved
  • 1 more for each time you’ve moved to a new city
  • 5 for a new country
  • 1 for each time you’ve started a relationship
  • 1 for each time you’ve broken up a relationship
  • 2 for each time you’ve gotten married
  • 10 if you (intentionally) decided to have children
  • 5 more for any subsequent children
  • Have you bought a car, gotten a new job, been promoted, changed positions in your job, switched banks, invested, flown on a plane, done an extreme or potentially dangerous sport.

Do you think you really resist change? Do you really think everyone else is much different than you?

These are all really big changes that are taken on willingly and in many cases enthusiastically. So why is there the misconception that people resist change?

The key is that people don’t resist change, we embrace change when we choose it. We change happily and often when we decide that the change is right for us. This is the essence of change management: answering the question “Why?”.

If you want to induce change in others you want them to choose the change in order to be successful. Change by dictatorship rarely works well and is never easy (or well received). If you want to convince someone to embrace a change there are 7 key questions that they will have (that they might not even know that they have) that if you can answer for them effectively will go a long way towards your change being successful.
  1. Why?
  2. What’s in it for me?
  3. Monday – what am I going to start/need to do differently on Monday?
  4. What might go wrong?
  5. What won’t change?
  6. What will go wrong or be difficult?
  7. Signposts - How will you measure progress towards the change?  

Succinct answers to these questions can prevent many problems that may occur that lend credence to the statement “People resist change”. Answering them won’t guarantee success, or even approval, but without those answers change is far more likely to fail.