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Problem solving

Colin Walls

Colin Walls

Posted Jul 30, 2009

I stumbled across a way to solve problems and also enhance creativity. And I want to share this discovery with you. I do not think that it is really anything new. I am sure that many, perhaps most, people do it all the time. But by understanding what is going on, maybe the approach can be used more effectively.

The technique is called “talking” …

Over the years, I gradually realized that, when I was trying to solve a technical problem, I would often reach a point where plain thinking was not enough. The next thing I would try was a change of scene – maybe go for a walk or just work on something else for a while. Often, I found that I would come back to the problem and see it with fresh eyes. Other times I would sleep on it – frequently waking up and knowing the answer as if it had been there all along. Although these approaches are just fine, they do not deliver every time.

I always recall the saying “two heads are better than one” [just like “many hands make light work”, which is contradicted by “too make cooks spoil the broth” …]. Borrowing someone else’s brain for a while is always attractive. So, I would sit down and start explaining my problem to a colleague. More often than not, something curious would happen: I would be about 75% of the way through my explanation and, “pop”, the answer would appear in my brain all by itself.

After some years, I began to wonder how and why this worked. So, I started explaining it to someone and – guess what – I knew the answer. The technique even worked recursively. My explanation, or theory anyway, is that we do most of our thinking with half our brain – most of us mainly use the left side. Modern Western education drives us to do this, as we are schooled to rely upon logical thought and rational deduction. When we are forced to communicate our ideas, other parts of our brain are activated. I believe that this activation exposes the other regions of the brain to the problem in hand, and the result is that a solution is determined. Basically, an increase in CPU power leads to an answer.

This technique can work with creative endeavors too – not just problem solving. I have found that, if I put together a presentation and then rehearse its delivery [or write a word for word script], I also activate more brain, and I have a stream of new ideas.

A word of warning: If you want to try this technique and have a bunch of helpful colleagues to use as sounding boards, be kind to them. Explaining 75% of a problem to a willing listener and then saying “Ah yes!” and wondering off will not make you so welcome next time. You must make them feel part of the process . Otherwise, you will find yourself talking to the wall and that really does not work quite as well.


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Colin WallsI have over thirty years experience in the electronics industry, largely dedicated to embedded software. A frequent presenter at conferences and seminars and author of numerous technical articles and two books on embedded software, I am a member of the marketing team of the Mentor Graphics Embedded Systems Division, and am based in the UK. Away from work, I have a wide range of interests including photography and trying to point my two daughters in the right direction in life. Learn more about Colin, including his go-to karaoke song and the best parts of being British: Visit The Colin Walls Blog

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Comments 2

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Hi. You are right. I experienced this thing back in university. I used to teach and discuss lectures with my class mates. I always got excellent grades in subjects I used to teach other after university time. This paratice increases the understanding.

1:12 PM Aug 7, 2009

Humayun: That is another good point. A great way to learn something is to have a requirement to teach the topic to others.

Colin Walls
1:14 PM Aug 7, 2009

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