Critical Thinking

5 Ways to Be a Better Problem Solver

Problem solving is one of the most important skills in tech. Whether you are a researcher, a product manager, an engineer, or a designer — you need to be able to solve complex and abstract problems on a daily basis. Problem solving isn’t an innate skill. It’s something you can get better at with practice. Here are 5 ways that I’ve found to improve my own problem solving skills:

  1. Be an idea scavenger – Collect ideas from a wide variety of sources: books, journals, podcasts, art. Look for patterns in the information you learn and seek to apply it creatively to your own industry.
  2. Cite your sources – Get in the habit of knowing where your ideas and beliefs are coming from. Before stating a “fact”, think about where you learned that thing. For extra accountability, try saying the source aloud. You may find that many of your sources are suspect.
  3. Expose your ideas to the crucible of feedback – Get your ideas down on paper and then show them to other people. Your peers and mentors will be able to see the problem from a different point of view and might pick up on things that you missed.
  4. Go back to first principles – How do you know you have a good solution? You can ask “why” five times and still be able to explain the logic clearly.
  5. Reflect on your process – After solving a problem, go back and look at what you got right (and what you got wrong). How did you approach the problem? Why were you right about the things you were right about and wrong about the others? Adjust your process to optimize for being right more often.

1. Be an idea scavenger

I proudly tell other people at work that all my ideas are collected from other smart people. I aggressively seek out ideas and information from others — then see how I can connect it in new or unexpected ways. You can collect ideas from anywhere. Podcasts, books, journals, art — the wider the net the better.

Will Wright is one of my favorite designers and a great case study for this. Wright has a voracious appetite to learn more. One of Wright’s games, Sim Ant, was inspired by the work of biologist E. O. Wilson. Great ideas can come from anywhere! You just have to be looking.

2. Cite your sources

When I first started in research, I was an intern with very little industry experience. I was mostly concerned with proving to everyone that I was competent at my job and was adding more value than I was taking in training. After a few months of doing good work (thanks to my manager’s guidance) I suddenly realized people were taking my word seriously. Things I was saying, even non-data things, were being taken as fact. It worried me.

So I started a habit of trying to add a verbal citation to any fact-like observations I was sharing. For example, starting a sentence with “I heard this from…” or “I read this…” I was quickly horrified to realize how many of those sentences began “I read a headline of a Facebook article that said…” or “A friend, who is not an expert on the subject, told me he heard about a study that…” It was embarrassing. However, this simple act of forcing myself to recall where I learned things helped me stop leaning on poorly sourced ideas. I started to have a more intuitive sense of where I was getting my info — and how I was weighing it.

3. Expose your ideas to the crucible of feedback

The best advice I can give to any problem solver is to get your thinking out in the open. Put it on paper. Make it visible. Then have other people beat it up. Subjecting your thinking to opposition can only make it better. Your peers and mentors will be able to look at the problem from angles that you can’t. Whether they have more experience, different areas of expertise, or simply the benefit of perspective — their feedback will make your work stronger. Getting your ideas down on paper, particularly in a structured way, can make it easier for others to provide that feedback.

Subjecting your thinking to opposition can only make it better.

4. Go back to first principles

There’s a great saying attributed to Einstein [citation needed], “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. The same is true for problem solving — if you can’t explain the logic, you can’t know if your solution is good. When solving a problem, pretend you’re talking to a 5 year old, and keep asking ‘but why’ after each explanation. Stop when you get to something that’s totally obvious. Then ask why again. Typically 5 why’s will suffice. Here is an excellent example on the topic of quantum computing from Wired.com.

5. Reflect on your process

A designer on one of my teams used to go back and watch past presentations in which he had laid out the plan for the next set of things the team was going to try out, and his best guesses for what was going to work. He then reflected on which of his ideas worked and which ones hadn’t in hindsight. Based on that, he updated his design process to improve his “batting average”.

This can be done with any type of problem solving. After you pick a solution, reflect on how you came to that solution. Was your solution good in hindsight? What about your process that got you there? What did you miss? Reflect, refine, rinse, and repeat.

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