Jan 17 2012

Ducks – Meet your new problem solving team

Each morning, you wake up, not with the Sun or in time to hit your 9am punchcard, but at the exact moment that your body becomes perfectly rested, whether that means 7am or 11am (or 2pm on Mondays).  You roll out of bed, do a few yoga stretches, maybe a pushup or two for good measure, then stroll down the hall to put on a pot of your favorite coffee (or tea if you’re so inclined).  You head to your office, the corner of the bedroom that hasn’t yet been usurped by the dirty laundry, and clear back the jungle of chinese takeout boxes, utility bills, and post-it notes to reveal a desk.  On that desk sits a purring little machine – you give it a little pat, open it up, and instantly become plugged into the rest of the world.

Congratulations, you are one of the chosen ones – the tele-worker.  You have somehow managed to turn plaid pajamas into professional attire.  You can blare your Michael Buble Christmas album as loud as you want without fear of persecution by your coworkers.  At this very moment, there are millions of commuters all over the world cursing your good fortune.  Yet, you have a problem.  It may not be apparent in the early days of freedom, but once past the honeymoon phase of tele-working, it will slowly start creeping in, not unlike the accompanying arc of disinterest in your personal hygiene.

The problem is that beyond the general process of slipping into cabin fever (solved in part by mid-day runs, lunches with friends, time spent at coffee shops, etc.), you slowly realize that problem solving tasks have become more time-consuming and arduous than in your pre-tele-worker days.

It’s not that the retreat into our homes has somehow diminished our inherent problem solving abilities, but rather that we tend to forget or undervalue the ability to quickly bounce an idea off of someone else in a shared working space.  For the tele-worker, a typical problem solving process goes like this:

  1. Search the internet for the kindred soul who’s stumbled across your same problem
  2. Spend an hour banging head against table
  3. Take advil for resulting headache
  4. IM a co-worker – spend 20 minutes explaining the context, before agreeing to:
  5. Get on the phone and talk it through
Simply jumping to step 5 is much more expedient, but depends on having a coworker, and being comfortable with disrupting said coworker, especially if due diligence hasn’t been fully completed yet.  As a replacement for, or a precursor to, talking on the phone with your coworker, I suggest:

Talking to a rubber duck

Yes, talking out loud to a plastic toy.  Put the rubber duck next to your monitor, walk it through the problem you’re solving, and be amazed when the solution comes to you almost immediately.  I’m sure we’ve all had this phenomenon occur when explaining a problem to a fellow human – well, a duck does the job just as well, without any of the judgement that can often accompany human responses.

This technique is used sometimes in the programming world and called “rubber duck debugging“, however, I’ve found it to be useful in all sorts of problem solving and brainstorming tasks.  It also seems to be more useful than simply talking out loud about the problem because the duck forces you to actually explain the situation step by step.

Without further ado, meet my problem solving team (put together my HR Director/lovely wife Liz):

Name: Bob
Occupation: Builder
Role: My go-to man – helps architect and build new solutions, as well as dig me out of ditches
Name: Sam
Occupation: Survivalist
Role: Helps me find a way out of a situation when I’m absolutely lost
Name: Nancy
Occupation: Nurse
Role: Calms me down when my blood starts to boil – also keeps my cursing in check

Name: Dan
Occupation: Lieutenant
Role: Berates me and my work when I’m not on top of my game and need to step it up

Name: Frank
Occupation: Fireman
Role: Puts out fires

Name: Jack
Occupation: Captain
Role: Indulges my desires to talk like a pirate

Name: Liz
Occupation: Princess
Role: Reminds me of who I get to see after work

**WARNING** – While working late at night and/or after a few bottles of beer, your good natured ducks may turn on you.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Jun 7 2010

The TED-Inspired Meeting Scheduling Experiment

Given the growing popularity of TED, we’re all becoming familiar with the idea of their specific time limits (18, 9, 6, or 3 minutes). I recently attended a TEDx webinar where it was explained that the reason for the multiples-of-three time limits is that people take them more seriously than multiples-of-five time limits. Time-limits which are multiples of five are often perceived to be suggestions or approximations, whereas 18 minutes sounds exact.

I wonder how this philosophy would carry over to meetings? As noted in a recent BusinessWeek article on how to give a Ted-worthy presentation:

“If scientist Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, ‘the world’s most powerful global computation system,’ can offer an 18-minute presentation on his quest to make all human knowledge computational and searchable, then you can surely deliver your team update in the same amount of time or less. Einstein once said that nothing is so complicated that it cannot be explained simply. TED talks prove it.”

Is updating each other on the progress of each of our sales leads, or giving a run-down of top team priorities for the week, really more complicated than Mathematica? Or does the difference lie in preparation and the perceived hard-and-fastness of time limits?

It’s an extra click, but the next time you schedule a meeting, try setting an odd-number time limit. If you do, let us know how it goes for you.