The Shape of Great Problem Solving

In January, one Sunday afternoon I was preparing to teach an IAP course at MIT. The topic: how to solve hard problems. Yet something was nagging me. How do you explain the different characteristics of great problem solvers? What does a Great Problem Solver have that others lack?

The course was focused on the behaviours required to crush hard problems, loosely based on my forthcoming book. But clearly behaviours alone are not enough to explain how great problem solvers succeed. My colleague Erik reminded me of an idea I had a few months before.

I popped into the garage and found a spare piece of wood - never make the mistake of fully decluttering. I chopped the piece of wood into an interesting shape. With the help of my daughter Ella, each side of the block was painted a different color.

Now when you look directly at one face you might see a black rhombus. Looking at it from another angle you will see a purple triangle (confession: I did not cut a perfect triangle and it is a bit light to be purple, but nevertheless you get the idea).

However an isometric view shows the shape to be much more complex. Multifaceted and multi-colored. I feel this better represents what it takes to be a great problem solver.

How does this shape help us understand great problem solvers? What it does is show us that problem-solving has many facets. One face might represent your motivation to solve a problem. Another might represent your ability to understand the technical aspects of the processes involved. Yet another face represents how well you have developed your problem solving behaviours.

And so on.

To understand how to develop great problem solving capability you need to consider it to be multi-dimensional. If you have a 2-D perspective you might only see one characteristic of what it takes to solve hard problems. If you focus on developing only one of these characteristics, you won’t develop everything you need to be great. And when you go to solve hard problems, the outcome will be poor for you.

I was left wondering if there is a perfect shape for a great problem solver? Then I thought: perhaps it is always changing, as it seems you can always improve your mental capabilities. As you grow, different sides will grow and take on new shapes. You may develop a side you didn’t previously focus on, and your shape has now grown bigger and more complex.

In the end I feel my rough shape, cut and colored late on a Sunday, is a great representation. We are all slightly flawed problem solvers with much opportunity to improve. As you work to develop your problem-solving skills, take this three-dimensional approach. Grow your capabilities across multiple dimensions.

A version of this post originally published on Radically Better. You can read more here