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10 Ways To Think For Yourself: A Geek's Guide to Problem Solving

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. Ian,
    This reflects what would appear to be a common sense approach to problem solving, and it is difficult to dispute the importance of any of these points.
    I particularly like your second point, about keeping it simple. All too often, it is easy to try to think about too much at once, and I think that the process of breaking down a problem into bite sized pieces is essential in order to maintain a clear perspective.

  2. I have to agree with keep everything. Well, pretty much every point you mentioned here. I work out of my home office in the mornings before I drive to work in the afternoon.
    Whenever I find myself going into a brick wall, I often take a moment to look at where I am at with that brick wall just before I head out.
    Often when I am enjoying the scenery heading to work or home, I come up with some nifty ideas and find myself trying them out when I get home. Sometimes they stink, and other times, my clients wonder how did I get so brilliant.
    Problem solving rocks!

  3. This shouldn’t just be a geek state of mind. This is a good way for anyone to approach a problem and would also be a good way to reduce stress to problems that seem to be to big to be solvable

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