The Processes of Problem SolvingWhilst I was rummaging through the Internet, I found a few great presentations at Maker Faire by Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters, on problem solving. Adam is talking about the way he uses problem solving from within the theatre, model making, and special effects industries. I thought that this could make an interesting article even though Adam is talking about building and making stuff. He talks about how he, as a self-confessed skills collector, loved working in the theatre industry because there was little to no secrecy — and how he became like a sponge in that kind of environment.

I like to think that I, too, am a skills collector. However, with the rise of the Internet during my childhood I have become a skills collector online of things that I can’t do, easily, in real life. I have learned how to fly a plane, drive and race a car, and drive a bus. I have gotten to the point of understanding the processes of flying a plane, like an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747-400, but I do not plan on getting my private pilot’s licence and doing it for real because of the money involved. I am learning about the operational challenges of driving a bus and as much as I don’t think I’ll eventually get my passenger service vehicle licence, I can understand why bus drivers — in the United Kingdom at least — act the way they do.

Everyone I know calls me a “jack of all trades, master of none” like it’s a bad thing. They are actually missing out part of that quote, which reads “jack of all trades, master of none, certainly better than a master of one.” This is all an introduction to how I solve problems — and problem solving in general. I know that, while many of my steps (since problem solving is a set of steps) will be the same as Adam’s, they may not all be in the same order or there for the same reasons.

What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

This sounds like a silly place to start off — as if it is a bit too simple. However, if you don’t know what the problem is that you’re solving, there is every likelihood that you’ll mess it up. I’ve been asked to sort websites for people while not knowing what the problem was that they wanted me to solve. I ended up making the problem worse until they explained what the problem was; I should point out that I was 16 or 17 years old at the time. I now know better and ask questions to find out what the problem is before I try to solve it.

What is the big picture? Can I see the whole picture?

When I am building a website, I know what the whole picture, or big picture, will look like. I’ve already designed the site in my head and on paper. However, I always want to know what the big picture is when I’m working on a project that wasn’t built or designed by me. And I will always want to work with someone who wants to know where, in the larger array, this problem that we’re solving fits. The big picture may be an array of 20 or more small problems that have to be solved. This works for both hardware and software problems.

How does this problem fit into the larger array? Does it fit?

This is another question that I often ask. Sometimes you are solving another problem that you’ve found whilst trying to solve a problem that fits into the big picture. Does this problem need to be solved now? Can I leave this problem to focus on the big picture? Sometimes the problem that you’ve encountered whilst trying to solve another does not fit into the larger array but is a part of a subsection that will still need to be solved. Problem solving is never a linear process, although there are some people and companies who think that it is a linear process.

How much time do I have?

This is a question I ask both when I’m working on a project and when I’m trying to solve problems that pop up when I’m dealing with hardware and software “out and about.” If there is no time constraint, I like to give myself a fake deadline — otherwise my work will never get done. I do some voluntary stuff for my local church and time is a major factor. I don’t get a lot of time to set up and deal with any problems that may arise, so I have had to find a way to shorten my problem solving steps to make better use of my time sorting the problem.

How important is this step? Can it be fudged with?

The more time I spend problem solving, the more I realise just how much a step can or cannot be “fudged” with. In short, I mean does this step have to be completely perfect, or can it be really loosey goosey? Wiring is a good example of this because I would always try to get my wiring to look nice when connecting it to speakers, amplifiers, and computers. The more I questioned the importance of this step, the more I realised that it wasn’t all that important and could be made pretty later.

Am I missing something stupid?

This is something Adam talks about a lot in his presentation and I have to say that I completely agree with them. The amount of times I’ve gone into a website build and thought “this is easy,” I’ve messed it up completely. This was implemented a good five years back when I first learned that, when I let my guard down because I thought the task was easy, I made silly mistakes. I’m sure there are many of you who think the same way and have done the same things.

To conclude

This is how I problem solve; you may be different, but I’d like to think that we have all found a way that suits our style and makes sense to us. I know that my method works for me and has done for the past five years or so. It may not work for you, but this may be a good time to “stop and smell the roses” and question your process. Many of us don’t realise that we have a process because it is embedded into who we are — and our very makeup. It may also give you the opportunity to learn about your process and even find places where you are “missing something stupid.” How do you problem solve?