10 Ways To Think For Yourself: A Geek’s Guide to Problem Solving
Ian Lurie Feb 7 2009
Your boss comes to you and says “I need [insert seemingly impossible request here].”
What do you do? You can deluge your already harried superiors with questions, until you all give up in frustration. Or, you can (gasp) research, analyze and solve the problem.
Not many people know how to do this. Your brain is 3 pounds of problem-solving muscle. Exercise it regularly and you’ll go far. Here’s how:
- Get into the right frame of mind. Problem solving is fun. You’re about to learn something cool. Go for a quick walk, or listen to the sound track of 300 to get all pumped up. Rarrr!
- Simplify. What are the components of the problem? Break it down into the smallest possible elements. If you need a new web site, you have to start with the architecture. If you have to sell 400 units, you need to know the best price, first.
- Open the gate. Now that you know the components of your problem, start with the gating issue — the problem within the problem you have to solve first. Don’t be afraid to change the gating issue as you learn more. Just use one as a starting point.
- Research. If you work on the web and you don’t use search engines as a problem solving tool, I will hang you by your tonsils. This whole internet thing isn’t a fad. There’s some good stuff out there. Go find it. Don’t walk into your boss’s office until you do.
- Use reverse. If you hit a dead end, don’t sit there staring at the wall. That makes me weep for the entire species. Use reverse! Find another component of your problem and work on that one.
- Live in dreamland. Start with the perfect-world solution to your problem. The easiest way to get a top ranking on Google? Have 10,000 pages of totally optimized content on a perfectly-optimized site.
- Then wake up. Write down your perfect-world solution and you’ll probably end up in an asylum. Ratchet back your perfect solution until you have a practical one. Relativity creating a road block? Find a wormhole (sorry, geek reference).
- Keep everything. If you get 3/4 of the way through a new web application and realize you’ve hit that dead end, don’t delete your work. Back it up. You may have solved another problem, or you may just be in a caffeine-induced stupor. When you pursue another possible solution, the final steps for this one may suddenly click into place.
- Walk away. If you’re about to put your fist through your monitor, stand up. Stretch. Walk around. Go outside and kick a few rodents or something. Come back after you’ve emotionally rebooted.
- Present options. I always ask that anyone coming to me with a question have 2 possible next steps as well. Otherwise I subject them to the same withering barrage of questions my Constitutional Law professor used on me. Mwahahahaha.
You can solve problems. You can think for yourself. Next time you’re stumped, carpe problemo with these steps.
One other note: As an employer, the one skill I value above all others is problem solving. The ability to look at a challenge, research answers and then develop a solution is pure gold, especially in emerging fields like internet marketing. You want a job? Learn to solve problems. It goes a long way.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More