Saturday, April 9, 2011

James Dyson and Failure

I've posted regarding failure and problem-solving before. I came across this by James Dyson on, arguably one of the more famous inventors of our time and his thoughts on failure.

Too often we're afraid to fail. Whether because of embarrassment, cost, or safety issues. However, it is one of the best ways to learn. Very few of us can manage to solve problems entirely in theory and place them into practice flawlessly.

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.