Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Problem Solving - reflection is key?

1st October, 2010

Earlier today I took @PatParslow’s short questionnaire on Problem Solving Skills - I can highly recommend it. What started out as a quick 5-minute interlude while writing a big stack of documentation (tedious at best) turned into quite the learning experience about how I do a lot of my work.

Problem solving is one of those things that I personally take for granted. So far as I can remember I’ve never deliberately tried to apply particular problem solving techniques to address an issue I have come across. I seem to always take what seems to be the most logical approach at a time. Taking the survey, however, for the first time forced me to reflect upon how I generally problem solve, and see if I could come up with any improvements.

I generally believe that there isn’t ever a single approach to solving any problem. If there was, we would all be doing it! The solution to each individual problem will inherently be different. While it may be useful to apply some generic patterns, such as drawing certain diagrams, going through some pre-defined steps, or trying to break down the problem, I don’t think it should be concrete in the approach.

One thing I have realised that is important is logging down how the problem was solved. To an extent, this can be done by strictly maintaining an engineers log book (something I have recently started doing with 3 log books for a series of 3 different “projects” I am working on) which you could reference later. However, making sure you look over how you came to a solution to any sized problem once you have solved it and observing, I believe, is often enough to help you in future situations.

The other thing I can’t help thinking about this - you will only get better through practice and experience. For example, people who do education courses or work in positions that require less problem solving will have less practice, and will therefore have a smaller bank of experience and existing solutions to draw upon when they are presented with a new problem. Conversely, those with more problem solving in their jobs or courses will be more likely to more quickly or more easily find a solution to a problem that is not necessarily within their expertise area than others.

I’m off to solve some more problems.