Thursday, October 30, 2008

Technical Problem Solving - The Site!

I finally got enough on my Technical Problem Solving site that it will be somewhat useful to someone coming across it. I've now made it publicly available. It's still very bland but my goal for now is not looks but content.

Still need to work on the navigation and links within the site, maybe add some graphics, and continue to add content.

I guess it would be interesting to get a counter on the site to see if anyone is finding it. It seems nobody has found my blog yet, but then I'm doing this mostly for my own benefit at the moment. Just trying to learn how to use the tools readily available.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Data Smog - Final Thoughts

I finished Data Smog. David Shenk proposes several antidotes (chapters 18ff) to data smog.
  • Be your own filter
  • Be your own editor
  • Simplify
  • De-Nichify
  • Don't forsake government
Other than than the last one, these are all useful advice for problem solvers.

Filtering what is coming at you is critical. When encountering a problem, you must be able to sort out what is important and what is noise. At the very least you should avoid distractions unrelated to the problem. Sometimes it is difficult to know what is important without spending some time on the problem.

Editor. Ultimately you will be called on to communicate your solution to others. Don't just spout out everything you learned but consider the audience you are presenting the problem to and what they need to know. What you communicate to fellow technical people may be different from what you tell the Marketing department. I've been starting to follow some blogs related to data visualization and the general advice given there (consider your message) applies to all your communication. Also consider what you will use to communicate (e.g. graphs, text, tables, loud shouting, arm-waving...).

Simplify. Sometimes to solve a problem you will have to simplify it first to understand the bigger issues. Then you can delve into the details. Many problem solving tools are simply addressing this issue.

De-Nichify. Sometimes the solutions to the problem are already out there, just in a different form or in a different field. If you are too focused in your own specialization, you may miss a solution. Sometimes the so-called innovators are those who are successful at putting together solutions from one arena with problems from another. If you attempt to maintain a broad perspective, you will be more likely to discover a solution.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Essential Ingredients of Problem Solving

I came across a list of essential ingredients of perception attributed to Rudolph Amheim. The list is
  • active exploration
  • correction
  • grouping
  • simplification
  • abstractions
  • analysis & synthesis
  • completion
  • selection
  • comparison
  • combining
  • separating
  • putting into context.

These are all things that are elements of problem solving. Cultivating these skills will enhance your ability to solve problems.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Data Smog-2007 update

I haven't re-read Shenk's book Data Smog yet, but I found the following post by him on Slate.Com made in 2007. He makes several observations about the current state of the information glut including talking about the vastly improved tools to filter the data coming at you. Google, RSS feeds, Readers, E-mail filters are all tools I need to master in order to avoid getting overwhelmed by the torrent of data coming at me.

The danger of being too connected is still there though and I think that in order to become a good problem solver, you need to be able to unplug yourself from the 'net and focus on the problem. A quote from his article highlights the dangers of constant interruptions. "We now know, for example, that it takes an experienced computer user an average of 15 minutes to return to "serious mental tasks" after answering e-mail or instant messages." My coworkers have become enamored with the Chat function in Windows but that message box popping up becomes annoying. That and the fact that my deskbar remains in the foreground, blocking what I'm working on whenever an IM arrives prevents me from focusing intently on whatever I'm working on. The best thing is to leave my desk and go in the lab where I cannot be disturbed as easily.

A broad focus

Currently I have started reading a variety of books and surfing websites that are related to problem solving and creativity. This presents a paradox. When one focuses in a narrow field your originality can be inhibited. Therefore it is imperative to read outside your field but that creates the data smog problem. What is important and how can you avoid getting overwhelmed by all the data coming your way.

Internet RSS feeds are a great way to subscribe to a variety of blogs and news sources of particular or peripheral interest to you. This is a great way to stimulate serendipity but one must make effective use of these tools to avoid becoming inundated by the information. This is what David Shenk warns about in his book Data Smog. I've started re-reading his book and am curious to see what his solutions are. The book is a bit dated (written in late 90s) but it is interesting to see how much farther things have come since then. However I think the tools to manage the information glut are getting better. It just takes discipline to use them and experience to use them effectively

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I came across a comment in the blog on the iPhone. Down near the end, on June 27, 2008. A Sabrina Simon makes the off-hand comment about people and self-learning. " academic leaning that requires an audience to invest in self-learning. After 36 years in business, I have yet to encounter a management group that is so inclined." I agree that many people won't or aren't able to self-learn.

That is a big issue when it comes to problem-solving. If you are not able to self-learn, you will have difficulty solving thorny problems. If you were able to look up the answer or ask someone, then you aren't really solving a problem, it's already been solved and you are just looking up the answer. I think the web site will assume a certain amount of self-learning will go on. I'm not sure how to develop some other person's self-learning ability. That's probably why I'm not a teacher.

Hopefully by reading blogs such as this, and visiting problem-solving websites, you already show a pre-disposition to self-learn and the information I hope to compile will aide you in your education.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Organizing the Process and Tools

I've started working on the web site and can already see that see that I need a good way of organizing my work. The web site paradigm is useful in that I can use it to form an outline and then flesh out the details by adding pages and sub-pages as desired. One of the first things I'm writing about is developing a plan and then developing a procedure to follow through on that plan. The web site and this blog are essentially forcing me to follow a plan by their structure but I don't have a good way of organizing my various thoughts and things I run across in my research. That brings me to suitable tools. I've spent a little time surfing and have found the following tools to help.

Google Notebooks. This Google application sits in my browser and I can clip information I find on the internet and paste it into the notebook. That way I don't have to use bookmarks (which can get cluttered and disorganized quickly) and the Google notebook is searchable so if I lose track of where I might have found something, I should be able to re-locate it quickly in my notebook.

The other tool I've found is SuperNoteCard. I'm also doing some reading offline and things I read aren't easily transferable to the internet. This application seems like it will be useful for recording stuff I come across and then organizing it later on. I haven't paid for it yet, because I want to play a little more with it. Not that there is a steep learning curve, it's pretty intuitive - just like a stack of paper notecards - but I'm not sure if I can't accomplish the same thing with the Google notebook.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What's my angle?

As I begin to work on the website and search for information on problem solving, it is clear that there is a lot out there. Problem solving is one of the key aspects of Quality Improvement or one of the many names it is given (TQM, Lean Enterprise). In addition to the self-educating aspect of the website, it will need to have something unique that other sites or books don't have. At this moment I don't have a clear idea of this but perhaps it will have something to do with injecting creativity into the problem solving process. As suggested by my diversity of thought post, we can sometimes fail to solve problems because we don't come up with creative solutions.

Despite frequent exhortations by managers to "think out of the box", I don't think we normally are able to do this. Hopefully my site will be able to incorporate practical suggestions for ways to develop the ability to "think out of the box".