How to get unstuck: solving hard problems

From time to time a problem arises for which there is no easy solution. Sometimes I get stuck with a hard problem and I have to employ special techniques to move forward. There are a number of approaches I use when I am solving hard problems.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

My favourite approach to solving problems is involving others. Even as an introvert I do my best problem solving with others. As a different thinker, I find the bits I struggle with are often the things others find easy with the converse benefit of me finding easy what many people find hard.

I wrote my entire university dissertation by describing what I was trying to say and having my now wife repeat back what she thought I was getting at. This was after she proofread version 0.1 and declared it unreadable. It was a successful technique as I got an award for the dissertation. Like many dyslexics, I am quite verbally articulate but for some reason, I can’t directly get what comes out of my mouth onto the page.

Talking things through with people is why mentoring is so powerful. As a relationship develops with a mentor they get to know your strengths and weaknesses and can better tailor their advice. But sometimes there is no one around….

Deploy the bath toys

So what do you do when you want to talk a problem through but there is no one around to listen. Get a rubber duck and talk to that. Explaining to a rubber duck (or another inanimate object) the problem is a common technique in software development. In describing what is supposed to happen in contrast to what is actually happening the incongruity is often revealed. This was a technique popularised by the book The Pragmatic Programmer.

Contrasts and Opposites

Researchers studying empathy (something that is not clinically well defined) often study psychopaths (something clinically well defined) as the exact opposite of what they are interested in. By doing this they can look at factors that are the some in both cases and factors that differ. This helps highlight the important aspects and direct their study.

I first came across this technique in high school physics. The goal was to make really efficient model cars. Before setting this task the teacher had us all build the slowest car we could. It was easy to think how to make a car go slow – lots of gears in the transmission, lots of weight, lots of wheels and not many batteries. Making the fast car was then a simple case of making the opposite design decisions.

The best or good enough?

Occasionally the challenge is finding the single best solution. Not every problem warrants the effort of finding the best solution. In such cases, it is worth considering if a good enough solution is acceptable.

Choosing a computer printer might be an example of this. There is a multitude of specifications with different resolutions, print speeds, print costs etc. If it is not a really expensive printer and the running costs are acceptable it might be better to just choose anyone and then use the saved time on something more productive.

This strays a little from problem-solving to decision making. I’ll do a sperate post on techniques for making decisions.

Take a break

This is one my dad taught me when doing DIY and jobs around the house. If something would not go back together correctly we would stop and have a cup of tea. And a biscuit if I was lucky. Normally over the cup of tea, he’d remember something that would offer the solution needed.

Sometimes we need perspective. When we are up close to something we can’t see the wood for the trees. I’ve carried this technique into my professional life. If I’m struggling with something a cup of tea offers a break and a stretch of the legs.

Park the problem

If I drink the tea and I’m none the wiser I’ll move on to something different. There is no sense in staying stuck if there are other things which can be progressed. Before I do I’ll write a note of what I am trying to achieve. Sometimes the act of describing the problem or the intended goal offers an insight to its solution (back to the rubber duck). Sometimes more time is needed.

Going back to my university dissertation: I ended up submitting it with one paragraph that read to the effect – I’m trying to convey X insight about Y to demonstrate Z – need to think how to phrase this to bring across the subtlety. Not very subtle. It was an important insight but I could not word it well. So if you park a problem make sure you have a way of coming back to it. I cover this in Safty Nets in my memory techniques blog.


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