A general approach to problem solving as it applies to data processing.
Yes, this is a technology article, about practical problem solving. Problem solving is not theory or philosophy, which are for the genius and the dreamer who take the high road towards heaven. Shakespeare said , “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Yet the high road needs signposts and ramps, drains and runoffs. It needs tunnels and bridges, and a surface that won’t wash away in the first rainstorm, or crack with the first frost. Technology is the hard and practical solution to problems. Technology is dirty hands, ripped fingernails, and bruised knuckles. It is a necessary, sometimes imperfect solution to specific obstacles.
Which is a long way of saying that technology is all about problem solving.
We all encounter problems. Generally, a little effort will fix things, but in this increasingly complicated world, we are sometimes faced with barriers which seem impossible to vault. Over many years of working with computers, I’ve learnt a few simple tricks for problem-solving. I’ve used these methods mostly at work, specifically in the area of Systems Analysis. However, they can be applied to any large task, at work or at home. These are the basics. You can use them to renovate a house, design a computer system, start an e-business, anything.
- Start on the problem. This may seem self-evident, but some tasks seem so complicated that we just won’t tackle them. The problem does not go away when we freeze up. Almost anything is better than inaction.
- Write the problem down. This will at least help you to focus on it.
- Write it down again, in a slightly different way
Are you still in total darkness? Maybe, but you have taken a step forward. You have begun to work.
- Is the problem too big for you? Chop it up into smaller pieces. Or if you can’t do that, worry away at one little bit. Problems are sometimes like a tangled ball of wool. Pull at one end, and the whole thing untangles.
- In my work experience, I’ve been told to design whole systems for a large company, from scratch. There was no help, no documentation. Somebody, however, wanted this, and was willing to pay me pretty well. He or she presumably had an idea of what was required when I was hired. My first task was to talk to that someone. So, go to the source.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Better to look confused now than to seem like an idiot a month from now, when you still haven’t got a clue.
By the time you’ve talked things over a little, written a couple of sentences, a few points should emerge. There won’t be anything tidy or final (unless you’re very good), but there will be some more sub-tasks to work on.
- Document the sub-tasks. At this stage, they don’t have to be in any timeline or priority order. Start working on them. If you get stuck, start working on another area. Come back to your sticking point later. You will find that completing one small task leads to another. Gradually, you will learn, and things will begin to fall into place.
- You’ll probably feel more confident now. If you still can’t visualize the big picture, try attacking from a different direction. Look at what the end product is supposed to be and work backwards.
- Don’t forget to communicate with anyone who can help you. You should now have enough knowledge to accept good advice/information and reject bad.
- Take a break. Let your mind rest. Get some sleep, and try to take a few days off. It’s amazing what your subconscious can sometimes come up with. Many times, after deliberately forgetting a problem for a few days, I find myself working on a clear, simple and elegant solution to a problem which has dogged me for weeks.
- At some stage, you can start to look for the big picture. Write down your information in some sort of logical order. Put it in boxes. Flowchart it if you know how. Use your computer to organize what you have already produced.
- Now you can start to organize your efforts, jotting down time-lines, deliverables, and expected results. I know that many times, in the work arena, you are handed this sort of information at the beginning of a task. What this means is that someone had to go through the mental effort described above. All you have to do in this case is follow orders. Unfortunately, life is not always that easy.
- No-one is going to be lucky enough to always be thrilled and stimulated by problems and adversity. If you’re recovering from the “flu, or a large meal, or a late night, you may not have that consummate evangelical enthusiasm and energy that we all wish for. Recover. Start the day slowly. Tidy your desk. Read your email. But make sure that what you do is connected with your work.
- Some writers will advise you to use every scrap of time. Thirty seconds to dash off an email, a couple of minutes to read a manual. A quick phone session with a colleague. This is great if you can do it. I get frustrated, and my energy dissipates. If I finish a task 10 minutes before I”m due to leave, I can happily stretch and scratch and go glassy-eyed. On the other hand, if I’m in the middle of a task, and have some hard-earned momentum, I’m not going to shut my mind down at 5:30pm exactly. So I don’t feel guilty for goofing off for five or ten minutes.
- Unless we are extremely lucky, we all have to work. One last tip – average working life can be thirty, forty, fifty years, and we’re not always going to be supremely happy in what we’re doing. Make it a habit to always work to solve your problems. You won’t be ecstatic, but you will be a whole lot happier than the person who spends all his time bemoaning his fate and the impossible tasks he is called upon to perform.
This is a very general outline of an approach toward problem solving. I’m sure you all have tips and techniques for completing simple and difficult tasks. Indeed, problem solving seems to be a very American accomplishment. The United States is the most technologically advanced society in the world, not because Americans are cleverer, or better educated than anyone else. Rather it is because there is still a “can do” attitude in this country, passed down through the years from the hardy pioneers to a still youthful and optimistic nation.