Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Solving problems or creating solutions?

question markAs engineers we spend a lot of time solving problems. A customer has a problem and it needs to be fixed. The electronic boards you have just designed are not working and the problem needs to be fixed.

Problem solving has a certain mindset. A problem is narrowly defined and the focus is solving that one problem as quickly as possible. An analytical mindset is adopted and there is an intense search for cause and effect.

The are many challenges with adopting a problem solving mindset. Problem solving can be misguided and focussed on finding the cause rather than obtaining the desired result – has the desired solution been correctly identified before starting? Continuously solving problems can be draining. All you ever see in your product or service are the problems with it, particularly if you are isolated from the happy customers.

The flip side of engineering is that we also get the opportunity to create solutions. Creating solutions is about seeing the bigger picture and understanding the idea or problem within the context of a larger system. This requires more lateral thinking and gathering information from a far wider variety of sources then when we are "solving problems."

Solution creating can be too loosely defined and only slowly drift towards the eventual goal. It is also easy to be continuously finding new solutions (adding features) which are not even needed to achieve the actual goal. It is important to stay focussed on creating happy customers.

Each mindset carries its own set of paradigms so when we adopt a certain approach we close our minds to certain solutions and possibilities. Knowing that each way of thinking opens up different possibilities means that we switch between the two as a tool to help us solve problems and create solutions in a quicker and more comprehensive way.

How would your approach to your current challenge change if you switched mindsets? Adopting a different approach may even help you to find more satisfaction in your work.

Image courtesy of Ethan Lofton, published under a creative commons license.