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A Guide to Solving Difficult Problems

Software engineers are ultimately problem solvers.
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Most of us know this intuitively. To build any sufficiently complex system is an exercise in both analytical and creative thinking–it’s solving problems, again and again.

We often think of creativity and analytical thinking as being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. But in reality, even technical problem solving and analysis is really a creative endeavor. Coming up with solutions requires creativity and inspiration.

Many engineers have their own habits and rituals for how they try to coerce brilliant ideas out of their brain. But this is also an area that has been studied by science.

While there’s no special formula for being creative, there are some proven activities and strategies that help individuals–and teams–be more creative and come up with better solutions to difficult problems.

Over the years, there have been many studies on problem solving and creativity. They’ve aimed to both define the parts of our brain that are put to work at solving problems as well as how best to engage or stimulate them in hopes of generating better, smarter, and more creative ideas.

There has also been extensive study of the process of solving problems.

The most famous framework comes from George Polya, a professor who advanced a simple, 4-step process for solving problems:

  1. Understand the problem
  2. Devise a plan
  3. Carry out the plan
  4. Look back

It may seem extremely simple, but this way of solving problems is also useful for thinking about how the process works and therefore how we can improve our own abilities.

Problem solving stems primarily from a moment of insight. This is the “aha” moment where we look at a problem from a different angle or consider it in a different way.

This change in perspective unlocks a new solution–maybe the solution we were looking for.

So, while the steps in solving a problem may be simple, the quality of the solution that we come up with is largely dependent on our ability to gain fresh perspective. As such, many of the methods and strategies for solving difficult problems can be tied to activities that attempt to change our state of mind or allow our brains to find new connections.

In a team setting, it’s also worth noting that diversity can play a huge role in problem solving.

Having team members offer different perspectives allows the entire team to consider a broader range of possible solutions–and increases the chance that they’ll come up with a brilliant one.

There’s no sure-fire way to solve a difficult problem. But science tells us that with the right approach, we can help ourselves find the insight we need to tackle just about anything.

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