Here at Mediafly, we are faced with hard engineering, product, sales and marketing problems every day. Each of us takes a different approach to solving these problems. Some of us like to create pros/cons lists. Others dig deep into data and use that help answer every question. No one approach is the “right” approach for everyone.
I recently had a conversation with our Engineering Manager, and he described his approach to solving hard problems.
- Take an attempt to solve the problem, but don’t stress about it if you can’t figure out the solution yet.
- Review the key aspects of the problem right before you go to sleep. This involves working on the problem from multiple angles. Meaning, if you tried one solution and it doesn’t work, try another. If it did work but it’s ugly, just note the key parts of why it works and why it’s ugly. You need to get intimate with the problem and be really familiar with it from all angles.
- Now, let the problem go. Sleep on it, take a shower, go for a run. Do something to take your mind off of it entirely.
- When you least expect it, an insight will find you. When the solution does find you, immediately explain it to as many people as you can. Don’t worry about whether they are an expert in the subject domain. Just start explaining. The mere process of explaining acts as a forcing mechanism to refine the solution further. It also serves as a filter; if what you thought was initially a great idea turns out to not be, attempting to explain may allow you to filter out the seemingly-good idea much more quickly, and get back to solving the problem another way.
I’ve watched him apply this method of problem solving over the years, and it truly is a thing of beauty. He will often take 2, 3, 4 attempts at particularly thorny engineering problems. He will sometimes throw away the code he wrote for an attempt and go back to the drawing board. He will restart this process from scratch as necessary. But, regardless, he almost always comes up with a solution that solves the problem elegantly. And watching his success has led me to begin adopting this approach for problems of all sort that I face as well.
 Special thanks to @laimis for being the inspiration for this method and this post! And he credits A Technique for Producing Ideas as inspiration for this process.
- Competing in SaaS by Leading with Product, Hiten Shah
- A Five-Step Technique for Producing Ideas, circa 1939, Brain Pickings