In Batman Begins, Alfred Pennyworth said, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up again.” Although this line sounds good, it fails to capture the real reason for the fall. We fall because we act on some incorrect premises. We have made bad assumptions about the situation; acting on those assumptions resulted in a fall. Think about any fall you have had. Stubbed your toe? Embarrassed yourself by something you said to your friend? The program you wrote fail to work properly for your customer? In all these instances, you mistakenly assumed some untrue things about the situation. You assumed that you had a clear path to walk. You assumed your friend would react more understandingly. You assumed that you had found all the errors in your code.
Although Pennyworth’s statement does not really explain why we fall, it points out a very important fact—we should learn from our falls. What should we learn? We should learn which of our premises we need to change. The fall gives us the opportunity to examine our premises and make adjustments. If we realize that acting on incorrect premises or bad assumptions caused our fall, we then can search for better premises to use in the future. We must then adjust our premises or we may fall again in much the same way.
After you pick yourself up from your next fall, take a moment to think about what you assumed prior to the fall. Determine more appropriate assumptions and then move forward with confidence that your previous assumption will not cause you to fall again. At the same time, realize that other assumptions may still cause you to fall again and prepare yourself to learn from future falls, as well.
When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl. – T.S. Eliot
Eliot suggests here that we produce better results when we work under the pressure of a strict framework. How does this happen? If we have an open ended project to work on, we will continually try new things to get better results. This seems like a good thing, but having a lot of freedom also leaves us open to try things that may take us down paths that do not lead us towards our long term goals. To keep ourselves from having this happen, we should set specific short term goals and milestones that focus our efforts continually in the direction of our long term goals. We will want to create some goals that will keep us focused in the right direction.
If you find yourself in the role of team or project lead, sit down with your team as a group and with each member individually. Set some goals. Specify some milestones. Create a strict framework for them to work in. Encourage your team to prepare for inspiration. Then trust each member to apply his or her talents to do great work and produce the richest ideas. Follow up on any commitments they have made. Encourage a productive environment. Then do everything you can to make it possible for the team to succeed.
As a team member, often a team or project lead will work with you to set goals and milestones for you. In that case, take those goals serious and keep them in front of you every day. If you find yourself on a project without milestones worked out for you, you can set some for yourself. For example, suppose a manager comes to you gives you a nebulous goal of killing that problem. The manager tells you that this project does not have a deadline because it does not belong to any current products. When this happens, sit down and outline a path to go after the problem. Set some milestones for yourself with the purpose of showing your progress to your manager on some kind of periodic basis. Go over your plans with your manager so that he or she knows what you plan to do. This will help you keep your focus on producing something that will benefit the company and away from all the other interesting, but non-product related paths you may end up on without proper focus.
A strict framework will help you produce better results. It will help you come up with creative solutions to problems that will benefit the company and its products. The time spent setting up such a framework will more than pay for itself in the results you get.
In her book, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, Ayn Rand defines inspiration in the following way:
What is colloquially called “inspiration”—namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write as you do, yet it comes out well—is actually the subconscious summing-up of the premises and intentions you have set for yourself. All writers have to rely on inspiration. But you have to know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you. — Ayn Rand
Inspiration that we get when working on any problem, not just writing, comes from the “premises and intentions” we have previously stored away in our memory. Let me use a sports example to illustrate this idea. During his career, Michael Jordan made some truly inspired moves to help his team win games. We watch in awe as Jordan and other basketball players do the unimaginable and we wonder how they could even think to do it. They do not think about it. They have no way of knowing in advance how things will go during the game. They must rely on inspiration to perform as they do. It turns out well because they have prepared themselves beforehand so that they can make inspired moves in the game. They can make those moves because they spent the time to store away in their memory the premises of movement and intentions of getting more points and blocking the opponent from getting points.
Let us step back and look at something that comes natural to most of us: walking. We walk without thinking. We can navigate around a room thinking of what we plan to do when we get to our destination, never thinking at all about the steps along the way. Our foot avoids stumbling over a book left on the floor without more than a glancing thought when we see it out of the corner of our eye. How do we do that? We have stored away in our body all the information necessary for us to use to avoid or overcome physical challenges in the room. Yet we cannot explain how we do it. While you walk across the room, somebody tosses you a ball and you catch it before realizing what has happened. Try tossing a ball at a two year-old and you will realize the inspiration you use to catch the ball. Your past experiences prepared you for that moment of inspiration.
If you want to ensure that inspiration comes when you need it, you need get away from the idea that inspiration comes from some magical source that you have no control over. You do have control over it. The inspiration comes from inside you. If you find that you cannot come up with a solution to your problem, it means that you do not yet have a good background. What do you do in that situation? You look at what others have done. You review past problems you have worked on and look for similarities. You discuss your problem with a co-worker or manager. After some time, a light suddenly comes on in your head, perhaps in the wee hours of the morning, and you get inspired with a solution.
Where did that come from? Most people cannot explain it. It came from somewhere, though; it came from your intense activities to find a solution. If you understand this, you will realize that you do not have to wait until you have another problem to work on. You can get a head start on the next problem by simply brushing up on your current skills and studying everything you can find in your area of work. Engage yourself in meetings. Talk about your work with others. Study and exercise your brain and body to solve many different kinds of problems. Take refresher classes in your discipline. Get the basics down. Repeat them daily. Practice. Inspiration comes to those who prepare themselves.
Without ambition, one starts nothing. Without work, one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
To succeed at most things in life, you must have persistence. Persistence requires focus, action, and discipline. Without these three components you will flounder on your way. Focus keeps your mind on what you want to accomplish. Action moves you in the direction you want to go. Discipline keeps your focus and your actions thus minimizing effort you will use to get there.
Set goals to focus your mind. If work related, make sure that goal points you towards the company goals and objectives. Write these goals down and review them every day and any time you find yourself feeling discouraged. Since you will read them when you get discouraged, make sure to write these goals in a way that motivates and encourages you.
Take action towards these goals. Without action, you have no movement. Plan your day with actions that move you towards your goals. You may want to schedule every minute of your day in the beginning. Just make sure you schedule time for action.
Discipline yourself to do the right actions throughout your day. You may get distracted, but your discipline will take you back to your focus and get you back on track with the right actions.
To succeed, discipline yourself to take action in a focused direction.
A few years ago I took a UCLA Extension class called Strategic Project Thinking taught by Terry Schmidt. He taught the idea of logical frameworks for project organization and problem solving. Check out Terry’s site and the web for some great articles that go into this process in detail. If you can, take a workshop or course from him or buy his book Strategic Project Management Made Simple. A lot goes into logical frameworks. Here, I will write about one of the key elements of strategic project management.
As with any good problem solving method, you first want to identify the objective you really want to accomplish. This will take some effort—in the past you may have given in to the temptation to use the assignment given to you by your manager as your objective. The real objective will usually include something about your customer. In the hearing aid world, you want to improve the lives of hearing aid wearers. Your manager may have assigned you to reduce the background noise in the hearing aid. The assignment will help you improve the lives of hearing aid wearers, but it may limit your thoughts when you seek a solution to the noise problem if you focus only on reducing background noise. When you have determined this desired objective, you write it in the form of a verb and object phrase, preferably with a subject, too. Choose your words carefully because those words will bias your thinking. For example, Sonic Innovations has the mission: “Improving life through enhanced hearing.” Keeping that in mind helps every person in the company understands their role and responsibility in the company and on his or her project.
After you have identified your core objective, you will want to break it down to the purpose of your project, the outcomes you want to have, and the key action steps required to accomplish those outcomes. For each of these you will also determine how you will measure your success, how you will verify that you did succeed, and what assumptions you will need to make sure get cleared up to ensure success. In all this planning, always keep in mind your high level objective, otherwise you may ignore some very important ideas you could bring to the world.
Many of the students in my algebra class wonder why they should study algebra since, for the most part, they will never use the algebra concepts after taking the class. I will tell you why you should take it and why you should try to do really well at it.
You will not find a better environment than algebra for learning and developing problem solving skills. The rules of algebra do not change and therefore algebra gives you a solid framework to practice in. You do not need to worry about uncertainties in the problem environment. When you work on an algebra problem, you examine what you do and do not know about the problem and you note similarites between the problem at hand and others you have done or have seen done in the book or in class. You make a guess at how to solve it, you try it, and you have ways to check your answer when you come to your solution. Nothing magical or unpredictable happens. You take a path, you get a solution, you verify your solution, and you try again if you get an incorrect solution.
We can define algebra as the study of the relationship between sets of numbers. The relationship produced by a given function remains the same no matter what we do. If we try to develop problem solving skills in the relm of human relationships, then we have the added complexity of uncertainty between individuals. We cannot always know if we really solved the problem and therefore our practice may allow us to develop poor problem solving skills. In algebra we know that we can get the right answer if we use the right solution method. We learn to not trust an answer until we have verified the results. We may have made incorrect assumptions about the data or the solution method, or we may have made an arithmetic error somewhere along the way. Practicing problem solving in algebra helps us work more carefully when we examine problems in sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, or physics*.
To conclude: have no fear of that algebra class. Take it knowing you will struggle, but that you will also learn very valuable lessons in problem solving that you can take with you to other disciplines. Sure, you will probably forget the formula for compounding interest right after the final exam, but you will work more carefully in the rest of the classes. You will also know that such a formula exists for computing interest when you get that credit card bill — you will not think your banker does magic tricks with numbers to steal money from you.
I think of problems as obstacles that get in the way of accomplishing something you want to do. Most creatures deal with problems by instinct and trial and error. Successful trials get stored away and get used when the same problem comes up again. Rational creatures, have the added ability to incorporate things learned from others. You may disagree with me on this point when you see children insist on learning from their own experience when parents try to convince them not to engage in some activities. We can also extrapolate from one problem to another through analogy to help us deal with problems that seem similar.
Polya developed a useful method that formalizes the process of human problem solving. Although he worked on mathematical problems, one can apply this method to any type of problem. You can find many sources that describe his method in detail, including his book , How to Solve It. I will summarize his method here in the following way:
- Understand the problem, including what you do and do not know about the problem.
- Create a plan of how you will try to solve the problem. Here you will make “educated guesses” about how to go after the problem.
- Execute your plan. If it does not work, go back to step 2.
- Review your progress, what did and did not work, and develop a strategy for solving similar problems in the future.
As you think through our strategy before actually doing it, you can sometimes very accurately predict your outcome. For example, when picturing how to get from your house to a city you’ve never gone to before, you can picture the path you will have to take, all the left and right turns, the distances, and the types of roads. With tools, such as Google maps, you can even get a satellite and street views to give you more accurate predictions of what you will see on the route. Although you can think about and make complicated plans and strategies to solve a problem, you still must do what all creatures do and try out your strategy. You have not solved the problem until after you have gone through your plan.
Having a structured methodology, such has the one presented by Polya, maximizes your ability to find a solution to your problem. Solving your problem will let you get on your way to accomplishing what you want to do.