Why Being a Good Problem Solver Means You Really Know Your Problem

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Many people on agile teams are good problem solvers. However, we frequently attempt to solve problems before we are ready. We forget to take a step back to make sure we fully understand the problem, and doing so can lead to less than optimal solutions. It's a good habit to really know your question before giving your answer or attempting to solve a problem. 

While we can sometimes take a problem at face value, jumping to the solution too quickly can cause you to miss opportunities to find a simpler and, perhaps, better solution. This is the key lesson in one of my favorite books, Gerald Weinberg's Are Your Lights On?.

For someone with a lot of experience, problem solving can be easy, but being a good problem solver is a difficult thing to master. In addition to learning to pause to question a problem, it's important to understand the context you bring to the problem. While experience is what helps us to simplify problems and quickly identify good solutions, it's important to check that your experience actually applies. 

Simplifying assumptions can make a problem less difficult, but it can also lead to the wrong result. For example, this NPR story examines how tests that look for the wrong thing can misidentifty problems. In this case, a common blood test based on data that did not apply to all populations uniformly led to the incorrect finding that certain groups of people had a vitamin-D deficiency.

There is a difference between taking the time to validate your assumptions and doubting the value of your experiences. For example, stereotypes and profiling are unavoidable but can be useful when there is no other information. Problems arise when when you act on the stereotype and make it policy.

The same goes for overapplying survival rules, which are based on experience. When used as input to our decision-making process, survival rules and stereotypes can help us make good decisions that leverage our experiences. When they dominate our decision-making process, we are likely to do the wrong thing.

We can't help but form theories about motivation or causes. These theories help give us a starting point for making decisions in the absence of information. But when it is possible to get more information, it's better to hold off on voicing a theory. This will help you avoid unproductive discussions or even do the wrong thing. You'll have a better solution when you gather all the appropriate data.

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.