When you are faced with a challenge, how do you respond?
Do you wade into the complexity and meet it on its own terms, with a complex solution? Avoid it and procrastinate until you’re forced to throw together a messy solution?
As it happens, complicated problems don’t have to have complicated solutions. There may be simple ways to tackle even the most complex of problems. Just ask engineers.
It bears mentioning that “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy”. Something may be simple, but require a lot of work to execute. But that’s where your advantage can be, and the key starting point to thinking like an engineer.
Your problem-solving muscle is the one muscle you apply across every area of your life. So it makes sense that if you can improve your problem solving, you will feel the effects in every area of your life, too.
There are (at least) three simple principles that help the world’s best engineers solve problems that others think are impossible. The best part is, they are universally applicable: which means, you can use them in any part of your life to improve your results and more readily achieve your goals.
1. Is it the problem, or just a symptom?
All engineers start with properly identifying the problem.
Many people mistake the symptom for the problem itself. Then, when they expend a lot of effort to address it, they are exasperated when the problem keeps coming back.
Engineers have a simple moniker for this classic mistake: it’s a “band-aid solution”. The solution is not solving the core problem; it’s only addressing a symptom. The underlying problem is still there.
So how do engineers tell the difference between symptom and core problem? They have a fancy name for it that belies how simple it really is. They call it “root cause analysis”.
But what is root cause analysis, really? It’s simple: just keep asking “why” until you can’t anymore.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say a factory manager is walking through her factory and spies a puddle on the floor, a safety risk to the factory workers. She orders the assistant factory manager to clean the puddle up. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. She has only addressed the symptom. If the factory manager asks, “Why is this puddle here?”, she would discover that there is a leaky pipe above the puddle. If she asks “why?” again, she would find that the water pressure is set too high. If she asks “why?” again, she would discover that the water pressure valve is broken, and can’t lower the water pressure. Now she has discovered the real, root cause of the problem. When she replaces the water pressure valve, the problem is solved: she can lower the pressure, and there are no more puddles, no more leaky pipes, and no more safety hazard.
In just the same way, when you next encounter a problem, be sure to ask “why”, then ask again. And again, until you are satisfied with the answer. Once you find the root cause of your problem, the actions you take to solve it will be much more effective. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting effort on band-aid solutions.
2. Use first principles thinking.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, is known for his extremely ambitious and effective problem solving. When asked about problem solving, he always refers to this one simple principle that he has used to revolutionize multiple industries.
The principle is “first principles thinking”, or what he calls a “physics framework”.
When he was first starting SpaceX in 2002, and began to take his first steps toward sending humans to Mars, he came upon a major challenge. He discovered, to his dismay, that the rockets he needed would cost up to $65 million apiece. He needed a different solution, or his brand new company wasn’t going to work.
So he went back to first principles. “Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy,” he said in an interview. “So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”
Thus, instead of buying the rocket on the open market, he decided to purchase the materials and build it in-house. This approach is what has rocketed SpaceX to the success it enjoys today.
And within a few years, SpaceX was able to cut the cost of creating a rocket by more than ten times, while actually pushing forward new innovation in the industry.
So the next time you are up against a hairy challenge, break it down into the small elements you know to be true. Then build a solution back up from there.
3. Prototype solutions… A lot of them.
Linus Pauling, one of the most prolific and influential chemical engineers of the 20th century, has a saying that is popular among engineers and designers:
The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
The truth is that the best solution to a problem may not be the obvious solution. It may not be in the first 3 ideas you think of. It may not even be in the first 10, or 20. As Pauling’s quote indicates, the best way to ensure you find a good solution to your problem is to brainstorm like crazy.
However, what many people forget is that it’s just as important what you do after you brainstorm all your ideas. How do you choose the best one? How do you know which will work?
The simple answer, which engineers know well, is to prototype.
No, you don’t need access to a 3D printer in order to create prototypes. A prototype is any cheaper and quicker representation of your solution that helps get you closer to understanding the effects it will have. A prototype could take the form of a sketch with pencil and paper and take no more than 30 seconds to produce.
A good prototype will simulate key features of the final solution. For example, let’s say you want to build an app. Instead of starting by hiring an app developer to produce the real thing immediately, you can start by sketching out the screens of your app on a piece of paper. You can even stack them together in order, to simulate the experience your app’s users will have. Then, you can get people you know to interact with your prototype and give you feedback.
The key here is to create many, many iterations of your prototype. Once you get useful feedback, create another version that incorporates what you’ve learned. Test it again. And again.
Once you have gone through several iterations, you will be amazed at the amount of progress you’ve made. You’ll go from a hazy idea of what you want and whether or not it would work, to a concrete model for building your solution in just the right way.
And it works for everything, not just apps. You can prototype a job interview by practicing with friends and mentors. You can prototype a new fitness regimen by playing around with your calendar. Try it the next time you think you’ve found a solution to a problem you’re facing.
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