Friday, December 10, 2010

Breaks versus Interruptions

It is a good idea to take a break when working on a problem for a variety of reasons.
  • Overcoming mental blocks.
  • Getting a fresh perspective on a problem
  • Incubation
However, interruptions destroy the momentum you've built up. Some of the more obvious forms of interruptions.
  • Instant messages
  • E-mail notifications
  • Co-workers
  • Phone calls
To remain productive you must take breaks rather than experience interruptions. The fundamental difference is that you decide when to take a break. Other people decide when to interrupt you.

If you're a manager, make sure the people that work for you are free of interruptions. Perhaps designate certain time periods where people can be off the grid, focusing on the difficult problems. Then other times when interaction is encouraged. Both are important and so you need to make time for both.

If you're not a manager, perhaps block off time in your calendar, turn off the instant messaging and E-mail notifications so that you can't be bothered.

I wonder if anyone has ever studied the workplace and the amount of interruptions that modern day workers encounter and the effect on productivity. Although we're more productive today because of technological advances, we may now be turning the corner where we are becoming less productive due to the inability to focus on problems.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Short Memory

"You can’t improve a design when you’re emotionally attached to past decisions. Improvements come from flexibility and openness." A quote from the 37signals blog.

This brings me back to diverse thinking and confirmation bias. The longer we work on a problem, the more focused we are. The good part is that we tune out the unimportant and distractions, but the downside is that we are less open to a new insight which might lead to a better solution.

How does one achieve a balance between focus and freshness? One way is to have several projects going at once (who doesn't) but rather than flitting back-and-forth in a feeble attempt to multi-task, I think you should dedicate significant chunks of time and effort to one problem. Then switch to another without re-visiting the first problem for some time. When you return to the initial problem you can't help but have a fresh perspective. You've also allowed for some incubation to occur. The longer you've worked on a project, the harder it is to return with a fresh perspective. That's where the challenge is.

The time spent devoted to one project is a factor you can play with. If it is a project you're familiar with, you can stay away from it for some time. For a new, unfamiliar project, don't stay away too long because you may end up spending too much time refreshing your memory.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Technical Report Writing

Communication is one of a problem solver's core competencies. NASA has put together a guide for its staff on writing technical reports and it's out there for free on the internet. While it can be of help in documenting your work, it is helpful in other ways.

Chapter 1, Stages of Report Preparation, could also be though of as a high-level overview of stages of problem solving.
  1. Gathering of data,
  2. analyzing to extract information,
  3. outlining to highlight missing information,
  4. writing to build knowledge, and
  5. revision to perfect communication and knowledge transfer
When faced with a problem. Don't just jump in aimlessly, gather your data, analyze it to diagnose the problem better, outline possible solutions. Write (or implement) a solution and finally, revise the solution to perfect it and address any oversights or limitations.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beautiful Tools

An example of a beautiful solution. A hammer is simple yet can be used in a variety of situations (sometimes too many). It doesn't take a manual to understand how to use it. It is beautiful because of its simplicity. There's not much you can do to make it more effective. (Sure there are special hammers optimized for specific purposes, but that is a different kind of beauty).

Probably every toolbox in the world has a hammer and if you don't, you've probably tried using other things in place of a hammer (your fist, a wrench, a rock) and found that they don't quite live up to the usefulness of the hammer.

Just like Quality can be defined as fitness for use, Beauty (of a solution) is fitness for use. A hammer fits it's purpose. Nothing more, nothing less.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Beautiful Problem Solving

I have in interest in data visualization and there's a new book out there called Beautiful Visualization. That got me to thinking about whether solutions to problems can be beautiful.

They can, but what makes them beautiful? There are characteristics the comprise the solutions whether they are a tool, a process, or a procedure. Simplicity, flexibility, completeness, complexity. What is of value depends on the situation and the user.

Shaker furniture is famous for its simplicity and its functionality. What makes it beautiful is that it is both simple and functional. Too simple and it would lose some of its functionality and would not be as beautiful. Finding that balance is an art.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Creation, Consumption, and Communication

We engage in three basic types of activities: Creation of new ideas, consumption of existing ideas, and communication, either of existing ideas or our own new ideas. Each of these has importance and there must be a balance among the three.

I've posted about Isolation and Creativity before and there's a new book (and free e-book) about the need to focus in order to be productive. I've not worked my way through it (lack of focus I suppose) but it looks like the author will present various tools and techniques for eliminating distractions and the Data Smog that assaults us all the time.

I've also posted about consumption (or learning). One should spend time being exposed to new ideas, getting inspiration from others. Consumption shouldn't just be of the things we like or that agree with our mind-set but should expand our ideas. Not that we blindly accept everything that comes our way, but that we are able to see things from another perspective. Nothing is more dangerous than someone who is certain they are correct. Doesn't matter where. As Nassim Taleb points out in the Black Swan, Experts are people who don't know what they don't know.

And finally communication. Check the tag cloud for posts about that topic.

There must be a balance of all three. We will be strong in one of these areas. You must cultivate your skills in the other areas. While being able to switch from one to another is important, don't get into the situation which the author of Focus describes where you flutter from one to another so quickly that you cannot build up any momentum.

These three areas are a stool that your problem solving skills sit upon. Make sure each leg is strong and capable of supporting the weight of the problems you must address.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Unscientific America - Thoughts about communication

In their book, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum make the point that it is not so much that Americans are not knowledgeable about science but that there is a lack of communication between scientists and the general public. The book examines many of the reasons for this but in reading the book, it brought to mind the "Curse of Knowledge" from Made to Stick.

As scientists and engineers, we address all sides of a problem, considering the advantages and disadvantages and weighing their relative merits. This is vital, but once a decision has been made, one should consider simplifying things in order to more effectively communicate. To what extent one simplifies depends on the audience. In Chapter 5, Mooney and Kirshenbaum write about Preston Manning who distinguishes between "source-oriented communicators" and "receiver-oriented communicators". Don't communicate from your perspective but "think about the audience and how to reach it". Are you talking to other engineers, to engineering managers, to business leaders, to the general public? Each of these audiences will need a different presentation tailored to their perspective.

There is a difference between transmitting information and communication information.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Isolation and Creativity

I've also come across a blog posting about the Creativity Trigger. I might be misinterpreting it a bit, but one of the things the author mentions is being overloaded by information such that one doesn't have original thoughts but merely reforms what someone else has already done. Well he's a designer, and originality has more value in that area that for a scientist or engineer, but I think we can learn from him. While it is important to be linked, and exposed to many sources of information, you should also balance this with times of isolation. This can bring new solutions, approaches, and strategies towards our problems.

Like everything in life, we need to strike a balance in how we go about solving problems. You can't be everything at all times, so take the time to make a conscious shift in your approach from time to time.

Networks, Hubs, and Problem Solving

I recently finished reading Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means. In this overview of networks and the many places they appear in the world, the author mentions that there are hubs that connect different areas of the network to each other and they are key in getting information across the network. You may have heard of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon which is a game people play to relate any actor to Kevin Bacon based on movies they have acted in in common. The reason this game works is because there are actors who have acted in many movies alongside many other actors. Because of these actors who are 'hubs', actors who seem to have nothing in common are linked to each other.

That brought to mind problem solving. If you are an expert in one area, but have no connections to other disciplines, your impact will be in a relatively small area. You only interact with others with a similar background and your problem solving will have depth but not breadth. Your network is isolated, or you rely on someone else to be the hub to network your skills and knowledge to other areas.

Try to foster links in other disciplines, that way you will be a hub that will transfer solutions to many areas, just the way a major actor links many actors together. Likewise, engage those from other areas since they may be working on things that are solutions to the problems you have.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Organization and Creativity

One doesn't think of a methodical, organized person as creative. There's no eureka moment, frenzy of activity, or sudden change to point to. However, part of being creative is being prepared. Musicians practice long hours on very basic skills in order to have the ability to demonstrate artistry with ease. You can't play a concerto without having mastered tone and articulation. Despite what one might think, making music doesn't come naturally.

Problem solvers should build up a database (some might call it a repertoire) of information, techniques, and connections. You never know what might be of importance in addressing a problem you encounter. If you haven't toyed around with something, you won't know it's capabilities when faced with a problem. I've posted on this topic before, perhaps more specifically. Take time to learn new skills, play around with things, and build up a database of information in order to be prepared for your next eureka moment.

Here's Joan Rivers sharing about her creativity.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More about Failure

We like to celebrate our successes. We have graduation parties, celebrate the completion of projects, a big sale, etc. It's easy.

How do you deal with your failures? Do you try to forget about them, sweeping them under the rug? Maybe you're embarrassed about the failure or have been punished for the failure.

I think it's important (perhaps after some time has passed) to review your failures to see what might have gone wrong. Is there something specific you can avoid in the future? Is there a pattern emerging where similar situations end up the same? Recognizing patterns is what we as humans are good at, but we need to be looking for them. Burying your head in the sand and hoping to forget about a bad experience increase the chances that you'll end up in a similar situation again.

Also, leaders shouldn't punish people for failures (other than perhaps ethical failures - and certainly criminal failures). It will make them afraid to take risks, try something new, or be creative. How can you expect creative solutions to difficult problems if the consequences of failure are too great.

Mistakes can be golden if you learn from them.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Overcoming Mental Blocks

A quote from the signal vs noise blog. "Sometimes a design isn’t working because you think you can’t change the one element that needs to be changed"

The same goes for problem solutions. Maybe you're not finding an effective solution because you are locked in on something as being essential when it isn't. Take a step back, attack the problem with a beginner's mind and maybe another solution will present itself.

I was once faced with an analysis problem in which I couldn't avoid the compound I was trying to analyze decompose in the equipment. After many iterations of trying to find a way to avoid decomposition, I finally realized that if I deliberately decomposed the compound in a known manner, the solution was easy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The importance of measurement.

I was in recent discussion about quality and a couple of good points were made.
  • You cannot improve what you do not measure.
  • You cannot manage what you do not measure.
Measurement helps to visualize problems and gives us perspective. Whenever you implement a solution, be sure to include measurements so you can evaluate whether the solution is truly effective. Ideally it is a measurement you were doing before you implemented the solution so you can quantify the improvement, but at the very least, include some measurements so that future improvements can be quantified. Sometimes it will take a couple of attempts to arrive at the optimum solution.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lazy Thinking

Prejudice in problem solving is caused by lazy thinking. When we are pre-disposed to a particular solution, we need to be careful to avoid simply assuming the previous solution is the correct one this time also. This is related to the "beginner's mind".

How do you strike a balance between re-creating the wheel every time a problem comes up and re-applying the same solution? It has to do with lazy thinking. If you carefully consider a problem instead of jumping to conclusions, it doesn't cost much in terms of effort and will help avoid overlooking potential new solutions or new wrinkles to an old problem.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chartjunk or Communication?

EagerEyes recently posted about a study investigation the memorability of graphics and data. That brings to mind my earlier thoughts about communication. You may have the best data in the world but if it's not communicated well, then you've missed the target. I suppose which path you take depends on your audience.

When you're presenting to an audience of a similar backround or perhaps more knowledgeable about that data than yourself, minimize chartjunk and seek to present the data in as unbiased a manner as possible.

When you're the expert and are seeking to communicate the results of your interpretation, resist the "curse of knowledge" and incorporate some of the suggestions from Made to Stick to increase the memorability of the results and analysis. A perfect data presentation following Tufte's guidance may not be the optimal solution.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Expanding your Skills

I haven't posted much this year. My excuse is that I've been spending time learning PHP and Python programming. In the case of PHP It seems I don't have an immediate need for that knowledge but since it is commonly used to control many websites it seemed prudent to at least get a basic knowledge of that language.

A knowledge of Python has been more useful. I expect that Python aficionados will give many reasons to use that language, but I've found it useful for processing text files generated by our lab equipment to create summaries so they can be processed by our software to input data in a LIMS.

Don't be stagnant in your skills but continue to explore new areas. Some may not be immediately useful (like PHP in my case) and others will be. However, without exploring something new, you'll never be open to the possibilities that the new skill may present. Don't get stuck being happy with the status quo because you don't know what else is possible because your skills remain focused in a narrow area.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I haven't posted in some time. It's probably a lack of imagination.

Why is it that some people are content to do the same job, the same way over and over. I don't think it's that they're lazy. In most cases what they are doing is labor intensive. They might be very proficient and fast at what they do.

I think it's a lack of imagination. They can't imagine doing it a different way. Not automated, not faster, not different. Just doing it.

I follow a couple of blogs on Excel. The posts are mostly about customizing and automating so one can do things faster, and exactly the way you want them to be instead of relying on what the programmers envisioned. The desire to do things differently requires imagination about the way you want things to be.

Work on your imagination and who knows where it will lead.