Struggling with difficult problems

At CAST, I asked James Bach what he meant when he wrote "struggle with difficult problems" on a flip chart (forgive me for not giving more context - it's not important). It seemed vague to me. Too much like a hand wave for what seems to be a complex and difficult thing. As part of his answer, he told me to blog about how I struggle with my difficult problems.

Well, that's a difficult problem.

I don't know how I struggle with difficult problems! (Of course, as soon as I type that I hear Michael Bolton saying, "You apply heuristics; it's just that you're not particularly conscious of them.")

So, I'm going to blog about my struggle with not knowing how I struggling with difficult problems to illustrate how I struggle with difficult problems. All the events in this posting take place in real time.

1) I guess I plunge into the problem. Here I am writing about struggle with difficult problems without any up front thinking about how I struggle. I find it helpful to attack a problem that faces me head on. I want to bang my head against it until my head hurts, and then I'll stop.

2) I think about how I've dealt with similar problems in the past. I do this by searching my blog and other writings, scanning my bookcase (which clues me into past problems), and searching my email folders (many times I save emails with insightful answers and stories from friends).

3) In most cases I find that it clarifies my mind to write about what's troubling me. So, as you can see, I'm following that pattern right now.

4) Many times I check the Google global-super-mind to see how others have solved the problem I'm working on. If necessary, I'll let serve as a trusted advisor and I'll purchase a couple of books on the topic.

5) Sometimes, I just need time to think. I just caught myself staring out the window at a tree thinking about how I solve problems. Well, sometimes I stare at trees. I find that getting outside and doing something else for a short time allows me to focus my thinking with a new energy. After reading Life 2.0 I convinced myself to buy a kayak for just this reason.

6) I feel like I need to talk to someone. Right now I'm carrying on a conversation in my head with various people asking them how they solve problems. They all tell me different things based on how I imagine they solve problems. This is helpful for me to generate ideas for how I might solve this problem. Even better then talking to myself, I like to talk to someone else. Just articulating the problem for someone else can often give insights (another reason I like to write about problems). If you're lucky, they can point you in a new direction for a possible solution.

7) Sometimes, I draw a picture. I regularly diagram systems, draw mind maps, and sketch out relationships between objects and events. I would like to get better at this, but I practice on a regular basis - so I imagine it will get easier with time. Drawing a picture has a similar effect as writing about or talking about a problem. Only in this case, it helps identify the interactions and relationships.

8) If by this point I still don't have anything, I fall back on NLP. I try to answer the questions:

  • What is missing from this problem definition that might be causing me problems?

  • What is distorted in this problem, and presented, without adequate definition?

  • What is generalized in this problem and what is implied by that generalization?

I find that this helps me refactor the problem into something simpler. Or, many times, if gives me a different problem that I need to solve before I can solve the larger first problem.

I'm sure I do more, I just don't know what. Perhaps I'll get the kayak out on the water and I'll have an insight. If not, that's ok too.