Smile or Die?

I came across this entertaining animation by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce or RSA ( of a talk by Barbara Ehrenreich. She talks about the ideology of positive thinking. Although I don't agree totally with Ms. Ehrenreich, I do agree that positive thinking has been misplaced and misused. It has been misused to cloak or draw away attention from reality. This has been done to the point of denying it altogether. That is part of what Step1 is about. In Step1 you must admit that you have a problem. There is nothing more real than having to say out loud to another person that you have a problem. Once reality is acknowledged, it can act as an anchor to stop you from being drawn into presumptions and speculations that really takes you away from finding the solution.

She correctly points out that personal strength is amplified when brought together. That is, working in a group, even a group of two, will provide a better chance of you finding a solution sooner than working on your own. 

The Need to Ask Stupid Questions

We have all heard the phrase "there are no stupid questions". Why do people say that? More importantly when do we most likely hear someone say that? The answer to the second question is simple. People say "there is no stupid questions" during meetings when trying to get the audience to ask questions.  They also say that in group discussions when they are trying to break people's conceptions of the "stupid" and "smart" questions. Both want for it to lead to a discussion on ideas and get people to be creative. Which leads to the other often used phrase, "There are no stupid ideas".
But that is for another time. Let's look at how you can harness this to find possible solutions for your problem. This is done usually at Step3. You have admitted to having a problem and committed to finding a solution. You know what your problem is and what the goal of the solution is because you have told the group or someone else about it. Now it's time for ideas. And often you just don't have any. This is where the phrase "there are no stupid questions" comes in.
There are several ways to look at stupid questions and how they can help you find solutions. You can also use it to discount options or possible solutions to the problem later down the stage. Here are some uses for using or asking "stupid questions":

  • First - You have to ask the stupid question to get at the smart answer. Stupid questions are correctly answered by smart answers. If people give you stupid answers, don't worry because it only shows their ignorance and you know where those people stand on solving the problem. Getting a smartypants answer will also only reflect on that person, so don't get upset and move on. Keep looking for the smart answer because it is the right one. It could be the answer that everybody claims to know but reluctant to say out loud. And in a group setting, that may not be clear to everyone especially those that simply don't know. So having the smart answer being said ensures everybody understands why the question is thought of as a stupid one. Don't be surprised to find that people sometimes don't have the right answer as to the why part. 
  • Second - Stupid questions generate communication. The ability to answer a stupid question gives you an insight into that person's thinking, even if it is your own. For starters, refer to what was mentioned above about how the type of answers reflects the person answering. Secondly, an incorrect answer to a stupid question may expose a gap in understanding of the question and possibly, the problem. This would help you identify people with this different understanding. Try to understand their point of view by discussing it with them. It could just be that they are approaching the problem from another angle and from their perspective, their answers are correct. Make your case by providing clear and simple arguments to them, asking them to see things from your point of view.

Distract Yourself from the Distractions

Congratulations! We've done all of the other steps in the 5Step series. We admitted and accepted that we have a problem. That problem is defined both in it's terms and in the terms of the goal we are trying to reach. We have identified possible solutions and have decided on a simple criteria to selecting the best one based on our goal. The criteria we have chosen has narrowed down our choice of a possible solution and we have decided on one that is most suited to our time constraints. We are now on Step5.
However, despite time being an issue, we just can't seem to go on and do that last step. We wander around with the intention of doing it but every time we try, we find ourselves doing something else or stopping as we were starting.
If we are with a team, we find that our team that was so focused on finding the solution is now lost and is being distracted by other things. Word has gone around that our group have found the solution and other people are talking to other members of the team about getting involved in other projects.
Why do so many distractions appear at the of the 5Steps? Why are we so distracted just about as we are going to finally solve the problem?
Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why. But when it comes to Step5, overcoming them may not need an understanding of the reasons in detail. We just need to understand enough to overcome it. One of the most common and simplest reason why we are distracted is because we prefer the distraction. We prefer the distraction from the work We have made a choice to choose to be distracted. What is the most powerful thing about choices? Realizing that we have one. Realizing that we can make one.
So now consider you have a choice between work and the distraction, why is the distraction is preferred? Was t a conscious decision? Is it because you are purposefully delaying doing Step5, knowing that you can do it any time? This is the definition of being egotistical. But instead to someone else, we are just being egotistic to ourselves.
There is another way to look at this. Mr Anthony Robbins would likely say we associate the distraction with pleasure and Step5 with pain. For some reason, we still think about the problem negatively and associate everything with it, even it's solution, with pain. We have a natural avoidance of pain, so we avoid the solution because of that association. When compared to it, we think of the distractions in more positive terms. In our brains somewhere, we think of the solution as painful and we chose to distract ourselves to avoid that pain.
Either way it is not necessary to know exactly why. What is important is for us to refocus and go back to doing Step5. We need to solve the problem finally. We need to end this. The reasons will cease to be important once Step5 is done. Most likely you will wonder what the fuss was all about and why you hesitated.
There are several way you could use to find a way around it
1. Relabel. Use increasingly positive labels for Step5 and increasingly damning labels for the distraction - is Step5 work or is Step5 the path to success. Distraction is delay. Step5 is problem solved. Distraction is time wasted. Distraction is denying ourselves success. Step5 is success

Bridge Perception and Reality to Describe the Problem

You can know a lot about a person from the TV channels and TV shows they watch. They are friends who have access to over 100 channels, yet never venture from a small, select number of channels. They are people who channel-surf religiously, their viewing experience of the evening shaped by whatever catches their eye. You would expect these two types of people to be different in their opinions and general outlook of life. But what matters is not how we see things but what we actually see. We make take different paths but if what we experience is the same, we could be closer to each other than we think.
What we experience shapes our perspective. For many people, what is perceived is reality. An example I like to use often is that of someone who has just left the jungle, say Tarzan, and a car. He is told by modern society that he will need car. He has never seen one, so he does not know what it is. He is given a description of what it is. If you ask him to draw a car based from the descriptions he gets, what he draws is very different from what a car normally is. It'll be more likely an elephant. This is because in his reality, he has never need (nor probably wanted) a car. But he does need transportation. Whatever he rides to move around is probably the closest idea he has to a car.
We are constantly told what we need, most of it through advertisements. We normally don't feel a compulsion to buy all of it but it depends on how you process the advertisements. If you keep seeing the same advertisement or the ads that sell the same thing, most likely when you are are the store, you will notice that product first. This is because the advertisement has made an association between the product and the image or sound or experience of the ad. Similarly, the association we make between a car and a vehicle is the same as Tarzan making between the elephant and something to get him from place to place. All the various associations we have is what forms our perception.

It Doesn't Have To Be A Painful Choice

Solving problems means making decisions. Step1 is about making a choice to accept that you have a problem. Finding alternative solutions the solve it is the job in Step3. Step4 is about narrowing down those identified, possible solutions into one that you can do within your means and limitations. Step5 is about making the decision to act on that final, chosen solution.
So decisions are essential to solve problems. But there mere thought of making a decision makes us cringe. Even if we need to make just ONE decision, we will look for ways to either avoid it or postpone it. Have we asked ourselves why? Why do we shy away from making choices?
The actual reason may vary but it all comes down to one thing. Fear. People are afraid of deliberating or making a decision on choices. One of the reasons we fear making a decision on choices is that the choice could be a painful one. Another reason is that we fear that the choice we make will cause more pain. It may solve the problem but not without costing us inconvenience or even worse, lead to more choices.
But does it really have to be a painful choice? It is painful because we think of it that way. Why is something that will solve your problem be painful? Isn't it supposed to bring positivity because it solves your problem? Think of this way: adjusting to the sunlight at dawn can hurt the eyes, but what a view!
In reality, we make decisions every day, all the time. Whether we want to go work today. What road do we take. What time should we go back (wait for traffic to clear or sit in the queue). It is when we assign a great value to the decision that is becomes significant. I am not saying that we should make decision without thinking. Consideration and deliberation should be done but proportionate to the consequences. In fact, if you can, please take a step back before making important decisions. Listen to everybody but make up your own mind. It costs nothing to make a decision but we have to pay for the consequences. There is where some of the pain comes from.
In martial arts, sparring is always the way to practice. An instructor explained to me that sparring isn't just about practicing the technique but also learning to take the blow. If we are used to taking the blow, when it happens to us in real life, it wouldn't be such a shock. Sparring is not just about perfecting the technique and training our muscles to respond in that certain way. It is also to dull our senses to the shock of a blow. So something that is painful can also bring something good/positive.

Taking charge of how you feel

Start solving the problem you are facing with the right attitude and frame of mind. Start with the right feeling and you will have the energy and drive to solve your problem. You can even complete it without the 5Steps if your attitude is right. The 5Steps is a tool that you can use to identify what to do next or where to go from here. Bringing along the right frame of mind will help you get to the solution faster.
Most people feel really bad after something bad happens. When you come up to a roadblock that appears out of nowhere between you and what you want, you can feel deflated and frustrated. But you can change the way how you feel. I am not saying you shouldn't feel sad. In fact, crying over split milk can actually help.
Begin by trying to think about some problem you had in the past, something that happened at least a year or more ago. For example, you broke something. Think of how it felt just after you discovered you broke it. Why did you feel this way? Were you angry at yourself for breaking it? Did you feel sad because you couldn't do whatever it is you did with it now that it's broken? Did it belong to someone else? Did you feel ashamed or afraid about telling the owner that you broke it.
Now think about how you feel about it now. 
Do you feel the same now as you did then?Where is the sadness? What happened to the fear? You may be still feeling some guilt, but not as much as before.
Does it surprise you that you don't feel that way anymore? Remember, you are in charge of how you feel. That doesn't mean you don't feel anything. It also doesn't mean you cannot be affected by events or people around you. It does mean that although you feel sad, you can make yourself feel relieved or happy (or happier). It does mean that if you feel angry or upset, you can make yourself be calm and composed. You can choose to face a problem in a panic or take charge of how you feel. Taking charge of how you feel will lead you to taking charge of how you think.

Use Bad Ideas to Reach Good Ideas

When brainstorming for possible solutions, it does seems cliched to say "There is no such thing as a bad idea" or "There is no such thing as a stupid question". In both cases, it's how the idea is used or the question is answered that will determine whether some use will come out of them. You have to take the attitude that both can offer something towards solving your problem. If you are working with a group, the way to deal with latter is to have the question answered by someone who doesn't think it is a stupid question. If there is a consensus that the question is "stupid", it should be answered anyway with the person answering clarifying why they think so. Questions that have answers may lead to more questions, which spreads out the knowledge and information. Don't be surprised to find conflicting opinions when people clarify. People may disagree why a question is "stupid". Harness this to explore new ways at looking the problem. Use the difference of opinions to come out with new ones and maybe a different understanding of the problem.
There are also many uses for "bad ideas". Here are a few to start

  • Use the idea as starting point. Explain why the idea is stupid (even to yourself on paper) and then look at the opposite of those opinions.
  • Break an idea-block by using the idea and exploring it's possibilities. If it is the only idea you can come up with and you think it is a bad one, then there are probably similar ideas which may not be as bad. Continue finding ideas that are less "bad" using those similar ideas.
  • Break a deadlock between factions in a group. If the idea is something both sides can agree is not a good idea, then a common ground is created for cooperation. Work towards making sure the "bad" idea is not realized. Make the "bad" idea, the "villain" that all the factions must defeat
  • Use it as a club or disincentive. If the "bad" idea is the only one available, consider using it if no other way or a compromise is found. Consider that the only possible outcome and offer it if no alternative is found. Make the "bad" idea the Solomon decision. Don't be surprised if new ideas suddenly crop up
  • Use the idea to define the edges of reason. Create a boundary of where a discussion shouldn't go using that bad idea. But don't totally reject. Use them in the ways listed above.

The skill of asking for help

This is some thing that would seem odd at first. However, as someone whose job is largely to help people, it is quite common to deal with people who do not know how to ask for help. It may seem strange to claim that. To think that someone who clearly needs help and are looking for it, can lack the skill of asking for help. That's like someone who's thirsty but does not know how to drink.
But maybe the person is thirsty and knows how to drink but doesn't know how to get a drink. This analogy is a bit off because the moment we are thirsty, we know what we need. It is a natural reaction. Asking for help is not natural nor is it intuitive. Asking for help is a conscious decision. We who are asking for help, know we are in trouble. But sometimes we don't know what we need. If we knew what we need, wouldn't that mean we solved the problem? This is the genius of the skill of asking for help. It will get us what we need even when we don't know what it is. The ability to know how to ask a question will help us find an answer. It may even solve our problem outright.
The first part of the skill of asking for help is to acknowledge that we do not know what we need. Accept it, even if it is to ourselves. Once we accept that we don't know or even might not know what it takes to solve our problem, we are more open to possibilities. We removed limitations to ourselves when we accept that we do not know and have to learn in order to solve our problem.
Second is to focus on what we want to achieve. Think about what is the goal of solving our problem. If we can't picture how the solution looks like, we can at least picture how it will be once we have the solution. Our goals it to not just find the solution but to solve. Knowing how it will look like once we have solved our problems means visualizing success. If we know how something looks like, isn't it easier to find it?
Third, is let someone who knows offer us a solution. Clearly, we lack some information or foresight or knowledge that prevents us from solving our problem. If we can accept that, we can be open to someone who is willing to share the knowledge with us. We can then use the knowledge to solve our problems. When we are focused on the goal, we can accept that a solution will get us there.
The common trap we fall into because we do not have this skill is to ask for something specific, thinking that it will solve our problem. There is nothing basically wrong in asking for something specific. But when asking for help, especially help from another party, it is important to emphasize to them our goals, rather than what we are asking specifically. What we want becomes a suggestion, rather than a demand.
Which brings us to the fourth, be thankful. So many people do not thank the people who help them. Some even choose to bite the hand that helped them up. We will always be facing some sort of problem. We may need help again. Or it may be our turn to help some one else. Saying thanks costs nothing more than a bit of pride. Isn't that worth our problems being solved?

Change Blindness: the cost of focus

Solving a problem requires focus. Nobody is doubting that. We need to focus on the problem. We need to focus on the solution. When using the 5 Steps, we need to focus also on possible solutions and their implications. Focus, focus and focus. But what is it that we are missing when we focus. The act of focusing means we discard what is not important and keep and eye on what matters to us. Information that we are not focusing on is ignored.
But what is the cost of focus? One of the assumptions that we unconsciously make when focusing is that what we are focusing on does not change. Everything remain still as we zoom in. We also assume that what we are not focusing on does not change also. It is like when focus on an picture. Unfortunately, unless you are dealing with a picture, most things change as we are working. Focusing our vision is a very fast process. That is why it seems as nothing has changed. But when we focus something else, like our thoughts, things at the beginning may not be the same when we stop focusing on them. At the end of focusing, we do not expect changes to happen. Our fixation can be so strong that we are not surprised at things that changed because we didn't notice them in the first place. When we focus too much, we miss change.
There is a famous example to demonstrate this phenomena. It involves a guy in a gorilla suit. This phenomena even has a name, "The Invisible Gorilla Effect". It is the subject of the book of the same name. Check out these videos from the book's site that demonstrate the effect. Participate in the experiments. How surprised were you at the results? In short, about half of us are prone to this effect. If you think about the amount of things we focus on every day, about half of the time we would miss something that changes as we are focusing on it. This article goes into more details on the phenomena.
There are several strategies to combat this. One is through variation. Having more than one person looking at something gives it more attention. The other person would notice changes that one person would miss. Exchanging information afterwards would also result in more changes being noticed or at least hinted at.
Another way to deal with this phenomena is to break our focus. Decide to stop focusing after doing it for some time. Be wary of too much focus. Stop thinking about it and reset our focus. A bit of time may be needed to make us forget the details. The amount of time needed depends on our memory and our ability to discard the past experience or memory. When we come back and look at it again, it's a clear and fresh outlook. Sleep is a good solution. A nap relaxes the brain and you wake up with a fresh perspective. I re-edit my posts after some time because I re-read, after a while, what I write and catch my mistakes.

My apologies

I apologize for not posting more. I have a ton of posts in drafts but not the time make them into readable posts. Having read through most of the drafts, I have come to a decision that I have to split off some of the posts to another blog with a slightly different focus.
Watch this space for more info or subscribe to have updates sent to you.
Again my apologies.

Solving Problems Means Taking a Break

Often a complex problem can get you down. If you are solving this as a team, it'll probably get most of you down. So what can you do when you realize you are in a room with people who realize they are looking at doom in the face? Absolutely nothing. This is probably the best time to take a break. How long depends on the time you have left. You are tired, stressed and running out of ideas. It is time to step back and take a break. Either go out, take a walk or get something to eat. Talk about something else other than the problem or work.
Contrary to what people think, if we care about something enough, the brain will continue to think about it even though we do something else. It has been proven that mundane tasks or repetitive actions can ease the pressure on oneself to solve a problem. Basically, you are focusing on something less stressful. Less stress frees up the brain to actually solving the problem. That is why some people pace the room. The act of repetitive walking up and down moves the immediate focus of the brain away from the problem directly and on the physical act itself.
So, do something physical or menial or repetitive but calming. A very smart group leader I knew a long time ago, would stop and take a few minutes to sweep the room or clean up when he was stuck on solving a problem. He would suddenly get up and start sweeping the room, regardless of what else was happening or what time it was. It was not uncommon to see him doing menial work or cleaning up way into the early hours in the day.  He would come back into meetings with new ideas. Often he found new ways to motivate his team to find a solution.
Another way the brain continues working on the problem while you do these other tasks is processing new information. Depending on who you are, the brain will take different amounts of time to process the information it has. Now you add newly acquired information that you got while when you were thinking of ways to solve the problem. The amount of information now has increased.
But the brain is always processing information. The way it processes information is by building pathways within itself. Think of information it has acquired or the things your remember or something you learned, as points. The brain is always building links between these points. It may look like solid gray matter from the pictures but what it looks like under a microscope is closer to a web. That is why Step2 is very important. By describing the problem, you are effectively training the brain on how to process the information regarding the problem. You are giving it hints on how to build those links. The brain will create new connections based on this structured information. That could be why some people can't even finish Step2 before a solution dawns to them.
The best way to do that is to describe it to someone. Even if that other person is yourself.

Getting Unlikely Advice from Your Enemies

As I have said before in another post, the hardest problems to solve involve problems about ourselves. Personal problems are hard to solve because they are personal and close to us. We can lose objectivity. It is hard to judge ourselves because sometime we just cannot believe we are capable of doing something or believing something. But often by just changing the way we think, we can start dealing with personal problem honestly and work towards finding a solution.
An Arab philosopher once said, "If you want to know your faults, listen to your enemies". Why do you think he said that? Because our true enemies constantly look for them! We often react to negative comments with well, more negativity.  Or it could be the other way. We may have been taught to reject all forms of negativity to the point of almost denying their existence. But in reality, negativity exists. That is what I got from Newton's Law. People say bad things for all sorts of reasons. They may be jealous of our success. There are others who are not satisfied with their own success that they feel by denying others it will enhance theirs. People use negativity as way of getting attention. It is not that they themselves are negative. They are merely using negativity as a means to gain attention. They may even want to be part of what we are doing or be part of our group and it is their way of drawing attention to themselves with the hope of being included.
A good way to approach negative comments is to first listen to the negative comments. Then repeat them to people you trust. This can be a  good friend or someone who has advised you in the past. This someone should be willing to tell you the truth no matter how bad it is. If you don't have either of them, look for yourself. Ask yourself "am I so and so?" Think of ways or events that it could be true. Be honest. Nobody is listening but yourself. If so, don't beat yourself up. Everybody makes mistakes. Now that you know what they are, isn't it easier to avoid them?
If you are still not sure or feel you can't judge yourself, try this: think of what a person like that would do. Think about someone has done that bad thing or has that negative trait. Give this person a name, imagine how the person looks like. Make him real. Now image that person having that fault. Now replace that person with yourself and image you doing the same thing. Now think, have you ever done that?

Define Your Success

Let's start with this: Everybody wants something. At any given time of the day, if you think to yourself, "What do I want now?", you would probably have an answer. Most people can identify success. Success is defined by everybody in their own way. We take a look an object or observe a situation, we can come to a conclusion of whether the object or situation represents success. So success is an opinion rather than something absolute. We can identify it even better the more we desire success. A majority of us can agree to what success is and that forms a social norm. Something everybody can agree on that is good becomes something that is desirable by all.
However, as we agree with others, we tend to discredit readily other forms or opinions of what success is. We may also tend to discard our own personal ideas of success and replace them with what most people agree what success is. The agreement or argument can harden over time.We would find justifications as to why the commonly accepted view of success is best. We become more inflexible. Eventually, there is an acceptance that the way it is right now, is good enough. This over time would make the definition of success grow narrower and narrower. This would hinder solving problems. When success is narrowly defined, the options and means to achieve success and solve the problem also narrows.
But what if you disagree? What if success as defined by the majority is too limiting. What if you can see another way of defining success? You could have a solution that involves expanding the definition of success or requires an unconventional way of achieving success. Is your opinion worth any less than the majority?

Finding the Direction from Problem to Solution

What if I told you I call tell you where you are now? The answer is simple, you are here, wherever here is. Sort of a cheap shot but I do have a point. Very often, when helping people with problems, they tell me that they are stuck, that they don't know where to go from 'here' or what to do next.
I always begin by asking them the same thing, "Where are you now?" and "Where do you want go?". Most of the times they can answer one or the other but not both. They can tell me what is it they have now or what is it that they want. If they can answer both, they are on the right track. They know where they are and can describe the condition that they are in. They know what they want and what they can find once they reach there. All it takes at this point is go into the details. Depending on the answer given to the question "Where are you now?" they can either go into the details of the problem in Step2 or start finding possible solutions in Step3. Sometimes, it is also useful to ask "Where were you before?". Why? If you knew the way you came, which led to the current problem, you would know to avoid going down the same road in the future.

Taking the leap

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered his most famous quote: "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." in 1933, he was addressing a nation mired deep in recession, possibly the most complex of problem to face a country. The economy, with it's many dependencies and rules, seemed unable to find a way to solve it's own problems. However, President Roosevelt was not addressing the economists or Wall Street per se, he was addressing the entire population, everyone that participated in the economy. His message was simple "Do not be afraid."
We all have a fear of the unknown. This is a natural, self-preservation response designed to keep you from poking your hand into a dark hole. Who knows what could be in it. A poisonous snake. A raccoon with sharp claws. An old, rusty bear trap. We are also conditioned to feel safe in familiar environments. This is an effect of the fear of the unknown. Only the effect on us is the opposite. Instead of feeling fear or dread, we fell safe and secure. What we feel as being out of harm's way is actually the result of us being afraid.
The same fear of the unknown also makes us believe that tomorrow will be the same as today. We fool ourselves in to thinking that the future will be the same as the present. The simple proof of that is to just look in to the past. It is different. It may be in small ways like the tree growing a little taller. It can also be in big ways like the devastation brought on by a tsunami. We discount the existence of change. Change does not exist, we convince ourselves. See how silly that sounds once you read it?

Problem with Problems 2

First a recap of the previous post: A strategy approach is a method of planning thats useful when you don't know where to start. Basically it is an approach based on rules. These rules don't necessarily give you the answer but provide stepping stones on which your solution or the journey to your solution will rest on. You have to determine how you will address the problem (or pieces of it) before solving them. One key question to answer is "Do you solve it all together or do you pick away at each problem one by one?"
To answer this question, you need to take a good hard look at the problem or problems. If you can, break a problem into smaller pieces. Do this regardless of whether you want to solve it as a whole or piecemeal. Identify dependencies between each piece or problems. A dependency is when one problem can only be solved if another problem is also solved. Another way to look at this is that one problem's solution helps to solve another. A dependency usually has a 'direction', from problem A, whose solution helps solve problem B. If a problem is complex enough, there will be quite a a number of them. Knowing the dependencies will help you figure out whether you want to continue a divide and conquer approach or whether you want to solve it as one problem or in one go. This determination depends on many factors, mainly the amount of resources available to you, the time available to solve the problem and the level of your skill required to solve the problem.
If you choose to solve a problem piece by piece, focus on the dependencies at the beginning or in the planning stage. Prioritize the dependencies according to a criteria you set. If you are leading a group of people solving the problem, communicate the criteria to your team. So, when the situation changes and new dependencies are introduced, your team can quickly re-prioritize and re-focus. The more complex a problem, the longer the solution will be. Even where is the 'stroke of genius' solution, a solution that solves the problem much more quickly than anticipated, spend the extra time gained going over the dependencies to ensure they are addressed or solved. Overlooked dependencies could cause future problems or change the solution into another problem.

Newton's Law revisited - Part I

I was quite young when I first heard what I later found out was Netwon's Third Law: "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction". Everybody has heard it at one time or another. It goes on to say "or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions". The second part is not as famous as the first one.
What I understood however, was entirely not Physics related. For every force or effort there will be or at least possibly be, an opposing force. Try as you may, your efforts may be hampered by someone who is working against you or something that can ruin your work. This also applied for reasoning. For every reason for something, I can possibly find a reason against it.
That was a problem for me because if there is always an opposite force, everything I worked for suddenly became harder. I would always be pushing against something. A lot of times, life felt like I was pushing a boulder uphill. If I didn't keep pushing, life would roll me back down or roll over me.
Rather than this law be bad for us, it can be used as a useful resource instead. When we acknowledge the opposite or at the very least, it's possible existence, we can be more prepared in moving towards our goal. When we are trying to do something, if we know there could be problems, we can take precautions. Or the very least look out for signs of trouble.

The One Minute Manager Review : An outdated tale of leadership?

Good advice should be timeless. Look at Aesop's Fables. While he may have just gathered the stories, the advice within them are relevant today as it was the day the stories were first told. The problem today is that the wisdom is still valid but the stories can feel a bit outdated. Especially when others have taken the wisdom and spun their own tales or updated Aesop's.
In today's maze / jungle of contradicting pop/fad notions and self-help books (my site not excluded), it is easy to forget about the classics. Read them and be surprised at how today's authors can be seen as repeating the notions first brought up over a thousand years ago. While their problems may not be the same as hours, they grappled with similar notions and problems. I hope to write on Epictetus and Sun Tzu one day. They are so many lessons and ideas brought up by them that a few posts would do them no justice.
So I've set my sight lower, to a revered if not-so-classic book, The One Minute Manager. This is one of those books that I've read and forgot only to find them again later in life. If you haven't read it, be prepared for surprises. First, for a books so respected, it is quite thin. I first thought it would get the message across faster, focus on the important stuff. Then came surprise no 2, it is actually a fable. Not as eloquent as Aesop's but a fable nonetheless. The lessons are incorporated in a story of a young man in search of the 'effective manager'. We are not privy to the background of his quest, only that he is on it. He finds the manager and begins to learn from the manager and his subordinates the lessons that form the model or paradigm of the one minute manager.

Outlining Basics: Building Your First Outline

A tool I find useful in sorting out ideas and information is an outline. This is the same outline I was taught in Undergraduate English but given a slight twist. I will first cover the basics, elaborate on the components of an outline and give a simple example.
The first thing to understand about an outline is that it has a structure. It has structures on multiple levels. The first is the topmost or highest level. At this level an outline consists of 3 components.

  1. An Introduction - Normally introduces the reader to the document. Provides a basic description of the purpose and goals of the rest of the outline.
  2. A Body - Where all the main information is located, sorted and presented. In a paper or article it consists of paragraphs where each paragraph is centered around an idea or information or a collection of them.
  3. A Closing / Ending - This summarizes the document. It should re-state to a degree the purpose of the document and it's goals and how the document has achieved that. If the document is long, it should also summarize or restate key points.
The main area is of course, the body. This is the next level. The body consists of points. A point is a sentence that should state the idea in it's most simplest, straight-forward form. It can also summarize or state the topic of the information that will be elaborated on later. The elaboration can be done in the final paragraph or in sub-points. This means that points can be hierarchical or that a point can have sub-points. This is yet another level. These sub-points are points themselves and can have sub-points too. And so on and so forth.
Take a look at this simple example

  1. Introduction - Why my car won't start
  2. Body
    1. Symptom
      1. Turn the key and there is only a click-click-click sound
    2. Likley causes
      1. Battery is dead
      2. Problem with starter
  3. Closing - I need to narrow down the cause before going to the mechanic

Item '2.1 Symptom' is the topic while Item 2.1.1 is the elaboration. The sentence in item '2.2.1 Battery is dead' states the idea very simply and is a sub-point to item '2.2 Likely Causes'. Normally, there is no need to state item '2. Body' but I put it there as an guide.

When writing, these points will become a topic sentence. A paragraph is built around the topic sentence. As was pointed out earlier, the paragraphs will form the body. 

The Problem with Problems

Often standing in the way of solving problems are more problems. Whether this is the case, it will be discovered quickly in Step2.
You may find yourself talking about ways for solving the problem in terms of solving other problems. If you need to fix the door hinges, for example, you need a screwdriver. However, you can't remember where you left it the last time or who borrowed it last. Until you get the screwdriver or buy another one, the door hinge won't be fixed.
You may also find yourself talking about conditions for solving the problem in terms of solving other problems. These are things that must be there or the way certain things must be to solve the problem. But these conditions themselves are also problems. For example, in order to get a good resell price on your car, you need to fix it up. Literally, the condition of your car needs to be better to fetch a better price. But in order to fix it up, you need to find extra cash. Which was why you wanted to sell the car anyway.
You can also indicate cause of the problem to be another problem. You can find this in statements like "We cannot meet customers' demands because we can't afford the tools to finish the jobs sooner". This is very similar to the first one above except in one small but important way. The problem here is you can't meet customers demands because you don't have the tools because you can't afford them. But what is also true is that because you don't have enough money, you can't buy the tools you need to finish the job sooner. Because you can't finish the work quickly enough, customers are left unhappy. It is different than the first one in this way: the lost screwdriver didn't cause the door hinge needing to be fixed.

The Timeliness of It All

Time plays an important part in any solution.
We often wait too long. Do you consider your problem not important enough for you to solve it now? Or you don't feel like solving it now? Stop. There is no better time than now. Unless your solution depends on a certain time to pass or to wait until a certain time comes, get started as soon as you can. If you can start now, take the opportunity. You just may not be able to start tomorrow.
If you are hesitating, ask yourself whether the problem is no longer a problem? This fork in the road that is often taken without considering two main questions. First, don't make hesitation a reason to stop. It becomes an easy way out for those looking for a way out of solving the problem. Are you saying that the problem is no longer one simply to get out of solving it?
The second question is: Do you like the way things are, the way it is while there problem exists? It is the choice for those who want the status quo to remain or to be seen as making an effort to solve it but don't really want to. Ask yourself whether you are either of them. If not, try this: Go back to StepOne and try it again. Admit that is is a problem. Can you still do that?

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics 2

Continued from Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
One rule to always remember is "Just because is sounds true, doesn't mean it's true". If choosing a solution mean relying on statistics, keep the statistics simple. A statistic that is in a simple sentence can be analysed much quicker than if we were to question it's validity by involving the data. For example: If  that statement is "The device fails after an average of 14 months", it could be broken down into
  1. What does a failure mean? A problem that result in a replacement or device stops functioning requiring manual restart?
  2. Who did the test? The manufacturer or real-world experience by the person making the claim
  3. How long does it take to replace or fix? How long is the downtime? This takes a look at the affect of the statistics instead of the statistics itself. By assessing the statistics effect on choosing the solution, we can figure out how important it is and how important it be true. 

So far, yet so close

The title isn't wrong. It's supposed to be the other way around but when it comes to problem solving, it's probably right.
You've made the journey this far. You've admitted that it was a problem, even though it was hard to do. In the process, you even admitted that some other things were a problem too and needed to be addressed. You've sat down and described the problem honestly and in it's entirety, not glossing over anything nor overstating the minor issues. You've went through and found solutions, both natively and from others, both that require modification in behavior and process and those that require acquisition of new things. You looked at them alone and with others, selecting the best solution for the best situation before checking with reality and choosing one. You've made it this far. Ask yourself the hard questions. Why do so many people reach here but go no further? Why are you still here and haven't went ahead and just solve your problem?
A lot of efforts to solve problems, go the distance in terms of coming up with a solution but when it comes to just doing the solution, gets bogged down by inertia, fear and fatigue. It does seem counter-intuitive that someone who knows what the solution is, does not make the effort to just implement the solution. But it is very common. Ask any drunk who wants to quit.

Describe the Problem

Step 2 of the 5 Steps  is to "describe the problem" you are facing. The purpose of this is to gain a better understanding of what is it that you are facing, what is it that you want to achieve and possibly get another perspective or view on it.

THE best way to start solving a problem is to describe it in detail with someone who knows something on the subject or topic. Not necessarily someone who knows more but rather someone who understands the problem the way you do. Literally, someone who would use the same jargon. This could be a colleague or it could be in the form of a post on a forum. The discussion that follows could lay the solid foundation for a solution or even better, a greater understanding. They would be able ask the right questions, relevant questions that will test how much is known about the problem and it's causes. It may be embarrassing or even ego-busting but if it means solving the problem or getting closer, it is well worth it. At the end of it, smile and say thanks. Everybody appreciates being appreciated.

The next best thing is to describe the problem to someone who has a lot of experience facing other kinds of problems. They may not need to share the same knowledge on the subject of the problem. Instead, what they bring is experience. The details may differ but the tools or ways of thinking through a problem is roughly the same. They may ask you "stupid" questions, questions someone with the knowledge on the subject would not normally ask. This is a good thing. You would have to re-tell the problem or things related to the problem in a different way so that they understand. You could use different terms or simple analogies, examples that are roughly the same. My favorite analogy is that taking care of a computer is like taking care of a car. There are things you do when the computer or car breaks down (bring to mechanic/repair dude) and they are things you do regularly to keep them running well (change the oil / getting updates). All through this process, the problem will be re-examined and re-cast until more than one perspective of the problem is formed. Within one of those perspectives may lie the solution.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The phrase used above was first popularized by Mark Twain. It questions the use of statistics by questioning it's validity. Especially when it supports an argument that seems weak. 
It is damning because people put a degree of faith in statistics. The reason for this is because statistics are factual in nature. The way the figures are presented appears to be cold facts as opposed to opinions. At best, we see statistics as representing and reporting on data that have been processed by more knowledgeable people, therefore more trustworthy. But if examine closely this relationship, there lies the flaw. When we trust statistics, we are really trusting the people who came up with them. But doesn't that mean when someone is quoting statistics, its really hearsay? Ouch.
Basically yes. Don't assume hearsay is bad although the word is usually used negatively in courts. There are ways to figure out if statistics quoted to us really mean what they say. It involves asking hard questions like:

Teaming Up To Win 2

Continued from Teaming Up To Win.
A sports team has a very clear structure. Each team member knows what they have do. Each of them have both specific and general tasks. General tasks are jobs that are common to all members. Like to stop the members of the other team from crossing the field in football. At the same time they each can have specific tasks. A team member has to block a specific guy or run the interception pattern. All of these actions together form teamwork.
A sign of a winning team is when these tasks are clearly defined by the Coach. A good Team Captain knows not only his tasks but also those of all his team members. This information is crucial if he has to call an audible or make changes on the field to respond to some thing he sees happening in the game.
Each team member doing their job well is half the job done. What makes the whole more than the sum of its parts is how each member interacts and communicates with each other. Both of these are reliant on each other.

Getting Personal

Personal problems are the hardest kind of problems to solve alone. Personal problems are not just the private, non-work kind but can also be work problems taken personally. Work-related problems involving personality clashes other co-workers can also be taken as a personal problem.
Personal problem are hard because they tend to cloud our our judgment. Things we would normally see become obscure or even hidden. We can think we have ran out of options. Personal problems also change the way we act or behave. What we usually avoid doing suddenly becomes an option, sometimes the first option. Even the degree of what we do changes, taking our action too far or not far enough. All this makes Step 2 and Step 3 hard to do.
But there are ways to make dealing with personal problems easier.

  1. Get help. If you cannot see, some else can. To not seek help when it is available is not wise. Asking for help is offering to trust. Make Step 1 to be a declaration of "I have a personal problem and I need help".
  2. Write it down. When no help is near or you find it hard to trust, writing can be an equal substitute. By putting down your problem on something, you are starting on Step 2. Continue this by reading it back what you've written to yourself. Follow Step 2 and complete the description of your problem.
  3. Give yourself some distance between yourself and the problem. If you have the time, put what you wrote away for a while, like a day. Go and do something that normally makes you happy. Something simple like taking a walk, reading a book, having an ice cream or watching cats playing the piano.. Take a nap. When you feel refreshed, read back what you wrote. Or think about what you said when you asked help. If it helps, try talking it out a bit more. Imagine your are reading a problem someone else sent you. What advice do you have for yourself? Are you ready for Step 3?
  4.  If you think you are not ready, try to get help to start Step 3. Or you perhaps you want to take things slowly. Check yourself up. How are you feeling? If you are angry or upset, perhaps you should do something else. Or just let it all out. Either way is better than staying put. Personal problems can be very draining. Sometimes we can feel that we have given until we have left nothing to give. We can feel like we are drowning in the sea of despair. Just don't loose the one thing we need to stay afloat, hope.
  5. Stop making it personal. Ask yourself, how can I make this not personal to me? Is it really personal or am I just adding that dimension myself. Exercise your powers of rationality. Look from outside the box.
Personal problem can rob us of our judgement and objectivity. Yet we face them every day in many forms. That means that personal problems can only rob us of our wisdom and clarity of thought only when we allow them to do so. 

Take A Few Steps Back

You are stuck. You went through Step1 to Step3 and can't seem to find the solution that meets your criteria to solve the problem. Or you might have gotten to Step5 but you are finding the solution harder to do than you expected. You are having serious doubts about the 5 Steps. If you are depressed, you could also have serious doubts about your abilities and the situation you are in.
What advice do you give someone who is lost? "Re-trace your steps". Find the last junction you took. Go back some ways to the first junction you find. Look at your options. You know where you came from. You know where you got lost. How many other choices do you have? You should have at least one. Take it. Make note of where you came from and the options you already took. That way you don't try the same thing again.
When doing this, always remember that for each attempt taken, more resources and time will be used up. Be aware how much time you have left and what can you expend before solving the problem becomes your second concern.

Sports and the Problem at Hand

Team sports have two things that make their jobs easier than most people: a clear goal and a set of clear and stable rules and regulations. The know what sport they are in and have chosen to participate (Step1 and Step2.). They chose to be where they are and what they must do. We might not be so lucky but we can still learn a few things or two.
Like I said above, team sports have two things that make their jobs easier than most people: a clear goal and a set of clear and stable rules and regulations. When solving our problems, in Step3, we must establish clear goals. In Step2 we defined our problems and may have begun thinking of way to overcome it. Always focus on our main goal, that is to solve the problem. Solving the problem itself requires defining goals. One of these is the goal of the solutionMake those goals clear and definite. Be aware of limitations that our efforts have to be within. The rules and regulations that we must adhere to must be recognized and made certain. Be it in sports or in a working environment. In sports, the goal is simple: win.

If if you play sports or sports is part of your life, frame your problem within that context if it helps. You are the athlete. You know what goals are. The rules are made clear. It is now up to you. Make decisions. Decide on a strategy. Be aware of what you are up against. Psyche yourself up. Take to the field and go for success.

Related Articles

Considering Time For Success

When describing a solution to be considered to solve a problem, describe also the factors that need to be in place for it to succeed and the factors that need to be absent for it to succeed. This is called describing the environment for it's success. In order to mend a burst pipe, the pipe may need to be replaced. So you need to know the measurements of the pipe in order to buy a new one. There must also be no water flowing when mending it. So the water mains needs to be closed or the pipe plugged somewhere else. Some factors will be absolute. It needs to be there or it cannot be there. However, one of the most critical factors is relative and that factor is time.
There are solutions that exist within a timeframe. When or the time a solution is going to be executed could be as important as the solution itself. Consider this and make a note of it when gathering solutions for the problem. Think about the time required to execute the solution versus when the problem has to be solved. Does the solution take too long? Is there time to correct another problem that may come up along the way?
Another question to ask ourselves is when is the best time to implement the solution. Does it depend on certain passing of time? Are there pre-requisites that must exist before a solution becomes possible? Are those time-specific?

Do Not Lose Focus of the Result

Maybe you think your problem is not worth solving. You've tried hard to find a solution. You've had problems defining the criteria that will make the solution. You've asked hard questions and only got more questions. You knew the road would be long and hard. But you never expected it to be this hard. Right about now, giving up would be a relief.
Please stay focused. You may be closer to the solution than you think. In the meantime, try focusing on the rewards and gains that is yours once the problem is solved. Think about all the things you will be able to do once this problem is solved. Imagine your success. Remember the last time you were successful at anything. Did you think your odds then were unsurmountable too? Despite that, you still found success.You still made it work. You found a way. Take yourself back to that time and remember how it felt. Now imagine you solving this problem and feeling the same thing. Is that a feeling you want? The joy and exuberance of success. It is within your grasp. Take this opportunity. You deserve it.

Describing a problem: Sometimes you just have to say it out loud

Whenever I think of this phrase, the image that always pops up is that of John Cusak holding up a boombox, playing a song to his love played by Ione Skye in the movie Say Anything. Sometimes you just have to say it out loud.
That phrase, I think, is what Step2 is mostly about. Often when we struggle over problems, we think about it alone, turning it over and over in our heads. We try to make out an image of a solution that will make the problem disappear. We examine the problem by ourselves because we think it will give space to clearly think. We seek peace in solitude, away from pressing matters caused by or related to the problem.
It turns out that as much as we understand a problem and work it through, we use many parts of the brain. It greatly depends on the problem and how your are working through it. However, the part of the brain we use to talk is largely in one area called Broca's Area. By talking about it, the information that is being processed in many parts of the brain is now processed by one part. This part of the brain probably processes the problem in a different way. It may string together separate thoughts in order for you to be able to explain it someone. Sometimes, in doing this, the problem's solution may become apparent or that the problem becomes clearer. This often leads to the part when you stop in the middle of describing a problem and suddenly realize a solution or a new way of looking at it.

Teaming Up To Win

A group working for success can best be seen in a sports team. The nature of the job demands success on a regular basis. They have to win regularly. Success is clearly defined which can make the job easier or harder. The success or failure is highly visible against a backdrop of clear rules and regulations. In that way, sports, especially professional sports is easier than most jobs. There are very few controversial wins. Those that happen, happen in clear view of the public.
There are many things to learn from watching a sports team working towards success. For example, they have many types of leaders each with their roles:
  • Coaches. They have specific skills required by the team do their job. In this way they are like a subject matter expert or a consultant. They don't play but greatly influence what happens on the field. Their knowledge about the sport can give a team the edge they need on game day. The experience they impart gives the team lessons it can learn without the hard knocks. And they also provide the voice to lead them and raise the team's spirit when the chips are down.

Own the Solution

Ownership is a tacky issue with problems. When a problem does occur, ownership gets tossed around. The assumption is that whomever owns the problem, has to solve it. This wastes precious time which could have been used to begin to solve the problem. It increases anxiety among people who are targeted and can create a general feeling of restlessness, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
If it is clear that the you or your group is responsible to solve a particular problem, perhaps it should viewed differently. It shouldn't be viewed as a burden or obstacle. Rather than focus on the problem, focus on owning the solution. That is what problem solving is really about. You are responsible for beginning the process of solving the problem. You will find a solution that is a fit for your problem. You are probably solving the problem right now simply by taking ownership and moving the process towards a solution..
Look past the problem and focus on the solution. Be proud of owning the solution and don't let anyone take that away from you.

The Dilbert Principle

Stressed out at the office? Wondering why your boss doesn't understand that there things that are impossible or illegal? If you are applying the 5 Steps at the office, its best to understand more about you environment and the challenges that you will face in solving your problem. There is no book that does that better than The Dilbert Principle. If this comic strip is new to you, visit the official site for a taste of the genius of the series.
The Dilbert Principle is made of a collection of experiences sent by real-life office workers of life and insanity at the office. Author Scott Adams tries to sort out and explain them the best he can. Each chapter is devoted to a topic and is peppered with comics from his popular strip. The strips illustrate a point or goes into detail on a series of events that chapter describes. It is heartening to know that what goes on in your office happens elsewhere too. Although he humorously points out that competency is rarely rewarded, it is sad to know that his statement is true in many places.
Which puts problem solving in a difficult place. I am not going to judge your motivation to solve your office problems. I just hope you do.
The Dilbert Principle offers an insight in the thinking (or lack thereof) that goes in the office every day. You can take with you the lessons the book puts forward and use them to your advantage. Or just smile when a scene from the book is repeated in real-life.
I haven't found a book that is so on the money that I keep coming back to it year after year. If I was any geekier, I'd say this is the "Lords of Rings" of management books. Get the Dilbert Omnibus for the full effect. You can skip the last section of his second book, the Dilbert Future and even his last book, The Joy of Work. Scott Adams gets too philosophical in those sections. Who wouldn't be after reading story after story of the madness that goes on in offices around the world.

Influence Yourself

Problems can affect us in many way, almost always negatively. We end up being in a funk or depressed or fearful. Some people are logical. They can rationalize everything into something positive. Find that silver lining where nobody else can see. Most of us are emotional. We act based in part on how we feel. The problem is, when there is a problem, we tend to feel like crap.
So how can we start solving our problem when we don't even feel like getting up? First, we probably need to change the way we feel. Here are some simple ways to start:

Solutions Should Start Simply

Do not limit ideas for possible solutions. However, start with the obvious. Begin with simple, straightforward solutions. Leave the explanations as to why they won't work or why they are not the right solution to later. We will take care of that in Step 4. Use the solution criteria as a guide. Don't worry if a solution does not meet all of the criteria, just as long as it does meet a few.  Once the obvious solutions are all said, layer each of them with one layer of complexity. Make the simple a bit more complicated. 
But that complication can't be for it's own sake. It has to contribute to the completeness of the solution. The solution can become more complicated if it meets more of the solution criteria. A solution can be more complex if it makes the solution better. Complexity has to bring the solution one step closer to being the best solution possible. It has be worthy of its inclusion. Repeat the process with other solutions your are considering. Then go back to first solution and create more possible solutions by layering another layer of complexity and so on.