Tools to Define Problems
What are the kinds of things that we might be able to do to help us to define these problems in a better way? And so part of what I want to do is I'm giving you some tools that you can use that can create habits for defining problems. Mohr effectively. So another tool that's here is on page forty four of your booklet, page forty four has a tool that's called the nine windows, this nine windows, too lt's been used in a lot of different settings, and initially there were a number of people who worked on problem solving technique called tresses, which who used this tool but the idea behind this tool is that you can think about a problem often when you think about a problem, you think about it at what you could think of is the system level, and the system level is what's in the middle of this diagram, but that system that you're thinking about often has components to it as parts to it, and those parts exist in an environment in an ecosystem that you could think of is a super system somethi...
ng bigger than that system itself. And don't worry, I'm going to give you an example of this in a moment, and we can think about this problem both as it is right now. This situation a zit is right now as well as how it's been done in the past and even to think about how it might be done in the future all is a part of solving this problem of figuring out how to define the problem so let me let me return to an example that I promised to talk about yesterday so if you were here yesterday I mentioned thomas edison and uh I'm a fan of thomas edison I grew up in edison new jersey edison new jersey is the place where edison first strung up lightbulbs outdoors and this example that I want to use actually comes from the issue of how is it that thomas edison invented the lightbulb now as I mentioned yesterday right it's a little bit weird to say thomas edison invented the lightbulb because at the time the thomas edison created the the first incandescent light bulb in fact, everyone who was interested in that problem understood what the solution to the problem was going to look like that is it was fairly well known among a group of people who were all striving to create a electric light bulb that what you were trying to do was to take a tube where you had evacuated a bunch of the airs he had created a partial vacuum and that you were gonna have electricity flowing through a filament of some material that that filament was going to glow and that was going to create the light everybody knew that that was the solution to the problem the issue was how could you create a material that when you made when you made it hot enough to glow that it didn't melt or burns so fast that it wasn't practically useful? So what edison did was he didn't really invent the lightbulb he invented the filament that didn't burn out so quickly which just doesn't sound too sexy and it gets even worse after that because edison had a whole lab he had all these people working for him so it's really hard to say edison invented this edison created a process in which he had a whole bunch of people working in a lab who collectively came up with the filament that doesn't burn out quickly and he got the patent for that that just you know when you say it that way it doesn't it doesn't sound nearly as good as the edison invented the lightbulb um nonetheless we could ask an interesting question which is why is it that edison was the one and edison's lab? Why is it that they were the ones who came up with the solution to the problem and that's where this nine windows tool comes in? So if you think about it what what everyone what everyone was doing everyone who's working on this problem was working mohr less at the system level they said, look, we have, uh we have ah, lightbulb that we're trying to build that light bulb is gonna have parts subsystems consisting of this glass tube and on a filament, right? And there's a there's, a partial vacuum in the two there's a filament and the you know, an electricity that's passing through it. Um, edison approached the question in a slightly different way because edison was interested not just in the glory of making a lightbulb, but in the profits associated with selling them. And so he asked a slightly different question, which is, imagine I succeed. Imagine that I actually build a light bulb, that, uh, that that lasts for a reasonable amount of time. Who would buy one? All right. Well, at the moment that they were invented, no one would buy them. And the reason that no one would buy them is because nobody had any electricity just lying around there would be people. Do you just you don't have electricity now. We all have electricity in our houses, but at that time, nobody did. And so edison said, look, in order for people to want to buy my light bulbs, they're gonna have to have electricity in their homes how are they going to get electricity into their homes? So what he did was to say, look I need to solve two problems. The system. What is the what is the light bulb and the super system? What is the electricity distribution system going toe look like? Because nobody has electricity in their homes. And then he said, ok, how is there anything I know about that's analogous to that? Are there? Are there any other things like this? Well, yes, there is. In fact, at that time, a lot of people did have lights in their home on dh. Not just candles, but they often had gas lamps, right? So there was there was there was natural gas, coal, gas that was being distributed to homes through pipes, um, into people's homes. And then and then people would have lamps that would burn in their homes from this from this coal gas. Now the distribution system for that involved some central point at which the gas was being stored. And then it was distributed to neighborhoods through a set of pipes. Okay, now notice when it comes to electricity that's not the only way to have solved a problem of distributing electricity it didn't necessarily need to be generated an essential point and distributed. We could have had a system in which everyone had their own personal generator, or in which everyone had batteries in their home. Right they did but but he actually wanted a system in which a less electricity was going to be generated in one place and then distributed to a lot of other locations okay, so now he had this problem of electricity was going to have to be distributed well if you're going to do if you're going to generate electricity in one place and distributed all over the place then you need a very high voltage because as you send electricity over wires over distance you're going you're going to going to be resistance you're gonna lose some of that electricity so you have to start with a very high voltage okay so what does that now that the one thing that edison didn't quite get right he was a big fan of d c electricity and so if you really follow this stuff tesla wanted there to be a c electricity edison hated tesla's but tesla had this great idea for a c electricity and tesla one write much to edison's chagrin but um but anyhow so so edison had this great idea we want to distribute the electricity and so we're gonna have to send it over distance and we're gonna do it we need this high voltage so edison said ok if I'm gonna build a light bulb then I need a light bulb that's gonna work on a reasonably high voltage so he was designing lightbulbs that would work over high voltage everybody else working on this problem, I was just focused on the lightbulb they didn't really care about who would buy it, or they care a cz much, and so they were, they were typically designing lightbulbs based on the electricity that was easily available for them, so they would just take a battery that they had and stick it on their desks so they would design these very low voltage light bulbs. Now, it turns out, if you think about electricity, the amount of glow that you get out of the bulb is based on the amount of power that you put through it, and it turns out, if you studied any electricity, that the amount of power that you get out of something is related both to the amount of voltage in the amount of current that goes through it. So in order to get a high enough power out of your lightbulb in order to get it to glow, if you have low voltage, you need to have high current hi current means lots and lots of electrons racing through this material, which tends to create a lot of heat, which tends to make the light bulb burn out faster, and if you have a really high voltage lightbulb because you're worried about high voltage, because you're trying to transmit electricity across places, you can use lower current to get the same amount of power and so it creates a different dynamic when you're trying to create these kinds of of filaments what does this mean it means edison because he thought about the super system he asked the question where does this lightbulb fit into the universe how am I going to sell these things once I make him what is the whole system look like and he realized right now nobody's going to buy him because there's no electricity but if I if I create a system for distributing electricity along with light bulb then it's going to play some constraints on the problem and those constraints caused me to think about different designs than everyone else is thinking about then that's why edison ended up as edison and his lab ended up as the ones who came up with the right kind of filament they were the ones who invented the incandescent light bulb so they won okay everybody else didn't win uh that particular competition so this kind of tool is really useful for that because this kind of tools says look that that that that problem you're trying to solve that problem exists at a particular level of description but I could break it down into its parts or I can think about how that fits into a bigger picture I can think about how that's been done in the past I can think about how it's being done right now I can think about how I might like to do it in the future and by considering all of those possibilities I have the opportunity to think about the problem in many different ways before we continue on any questions about this anything come in over the wire yeah, we have ah great question here from future vision they're asking well was edison and narcissist gotta tying all of this together and trying to look deeper into that it was edison and narcissus well, I didn't I wasn't great friends with edison, so I don't know but you know, I would say that a lot of the of the great inventors our have have a certain degree of narcissism going for them you know, I mentioned yesterday alexander graham bell was is credited as the uh um as the inventor of the telephone despite the fact that his telephone designed came in on ly hours before alicia gray's design right esso and and in fact it's fairly well known now that bell was was familiar with gray's design so you know, I don't know right it's you know, I think I think that when you get competitive about about about invention like that that there can be a degree of narcissism that goes on I think whenever whenever you look at a story of invention or discovery that in that inn where the story involves one or two people um, you're probably dealing with some degree of narcissism there, and whenever you have someone who has discovered something and really says, yeah, my group did this, I'm all stand at the forefront. I may have been the leader of that group, but my group did this, then you've been you've got a little bit less narcissism, but I think, you know, if you if you look at that watson and crick and their treatment of rosalind franklin in the in the discovery of the of the double helix and dna, you get some of similar kinds of things coming out of that. So yeah, all right, now we also had some people kind of asking about placing constraints, looking at problems, looking at ways to interpret them. We had multiple people in the chat room bring this up. Now this one comes from lala they were asking about should replace constraints on how long we work on things, and their example is the pomodoro technique and a few people in the chat room mentioned that you're breaking things down into twenty minute increments, and they want to know your take on that. Yeah, so so should I limit the amount of time that I spend on a problem? That's, a that's, a great question, and the answer is yes and no, right, I do think that that at the point where the ideas that you have seemed to peter out when you're trying to generate ideas it's a great idea tto walk away from the problem now let me explain why that is and there's because there's two aspects of your psychology that come into play here the first is remember way back to the beginning of of session one when we talked about that role of three and I mentioned that memory is a lot like those five year olds being kicked picked for the kickball team right there jumping up and down and shoving the people next to them. One of the things that happens after you generate a few ideas is that almost everything else in your memories lying on the ground it's been shoved down by the things that you were thinking about and so one of the things you want to do in that situation is to walk away from the problem a little bit and let things you know re emerge so that's that's one one good reason for wanting to step away from problems um there are a few other reasons for wanting to walk away from problems as well, at least for a little while. Another reason for that is that you tend to get mired in the details of problem solving when your first solving a problem um and those details can often focus you on a particular set of of solutions, a particular set of things that come to mind the longer you walk away from a problem, particularly if you sleep when people say I'm going to sleep on it. One of the things that sleep does is that it removes some of the details from your the way that you're thinking about a problem which can allow you sometimes to be reminded of other analogous things, and so you're much more likely to get some of these analogies if you've walked away from the problem, perhaps taken a nap. There's no surprise that, like when our committee's discovered the law of displacements, if you know the story of our committees, he was given the task of figuring out whether a particular, ornate lee designed crown was actually made of gold. And so the way he was going to figure that out was by figuring out the density of the crown because they knew the density of gold. And so what he was going to do is hate to figure out the volume of the crown and then and then take the volume by the weight figure out the density, but the but he couldn't melt the crown down to figure out the volume so he was stuck how do I figure out the volume of this bizarrely shaped crown and he he saw he pored over the problem for a long time he couldn't figure it out when I went off to take a bath stepped into the bath and watch the water level rise right and as the story goes he watched the water level rise leapt out of the bath screamed eureka which is I have it and ran down the street naked because he just got out of the bath um I don't recommend that last part for most you know it's not good in most business settings in the modern era um but I do think that that stepping away from the problem khun khun b really valuable sometimes it opens you up to toe happenstance just teo fortunate circumstances but even even if not it allows you know the year your memory to sort of stand up and brush itself off it allows some of those details that might be getting in the way of solving the problem to come to mind. So so both of those are some good reasons tow tow want to walk away from the problem you know not necessarily in twenty minutes increments I what I would say is rather than thinking of it is time amounts to think of it as when you stop being productive walk away for a bit right it's it's you know um don't don't feel like you know I've got a chain myself to my desk until I'm done right there's there's value in walking away and doing something else in allowing things to emerge over a period of time almost you know I mean as a scientist I work in an arena in which people are being asked to be innovative and creative all the time nothing happens in in a single moment we were always projects are always evolving over time even things that seem you know that that that that end up being really interesting and important are ones that have elements of their evolve over time they involve certain amounts of happenstance you know, a scientist one of the things that you have to learn is to be open to what the world is trying to tell you that is to be open to those kinds of fortunate things people run experiments and I have students when I when I uh when I work with students sometimes they'll run a study and we will you know you always have a hypothesis you always have a prediction for what's gonna happen when you run a study and when the prediction isn't born out the very first time that happens I have students who come into my office and they say you know what the experiment didn't work I said we'll know the experiment always works experiments always work. They just didn't come out as we expected them to. So what does that mean, right? What? When? When things don't come out as you expected. Why is that? Did we did we make a mistake in the way we constructed the experiment or were we just wrong about what was gonna happen? And if we were wrong? Is that interesting? Perhaps perhaps we were wrong in a particularly interesting way. And over the course of my career, I would say that the that the experiments that I've run that were the most successful we're the ones that didn't work as I had expected they were going to when I ran them, because let's face it if you're gonna if you're gonna ask the world a question, if you already knew what it was going to tell you in every circumstance, what fun is that right? The real fun happens when you thought you knew what was gonna happen, and actually the world is different than you expected it to be. And that's really, I think a lesson in almost every domain. I mean, I think it works in science, but when things come out differently than you expected, that's where the fun begins, right that's where your opportunity is to do something really new and interesting and you have to embrace those rather than treating those as errors now another tool that I like a lot and that allows me to tell another fun story is, uh is this tool that sounds a little bit like a five year old complaining it's the y y y too um the way that this tool works is, uh I've got some some desired outcome that I'd like to see achieved and in that desired outcome I start by asking, why doesn't it exist right now? What's the biggest barrier what's getting in my way of of that existing and then having identified that barrier, I asked why that barrier exists and then and then why that's a problem and even still more why that's a problem? And I keep asking why questions until I find some things that that might help me to solve the problem right? So let me let me give you an example of what I mean by this um, ten years ago or so um there was a problem that a lot of people would face when they were when they were trying to work collaboratively on documents and the problem was that only one person at a time could edit something. So if you were if you were working on a paper together with colleagues, then one person would have that document at any given time and then they would have to finish with it and send it to someone else and then they would have to send it to someone else and so on. And if you had two people working on something at the same time was kind of a pain because they need to find a way of merging their comments together. And so it really would have been great toe have a way of having everyone work on the same document at the same time. So that was the problem. Write that and so the ideal outcome was everyone would be able to work on the document at the same time. Why wasn't that ableto happen? Well, it wasn't ableto happen because if you look at people's computing environments, we all had computers and everyone's computer had a hard drive, and at any given moment, uh, one person working on the document was able to access their hair it hard drive and everyone else wasn't ableto access it. Okay, that's, the barrier on ly. One person has the document at any given time. So then you could ask the question. Well, why is that? Well, why is that it's? Because everybody's got ah, hard drive on their computer. So everyone's got all their own data on their computer. Okay, well, why is that, why does everyone have their own data on their computer, you might think what uh what? What is the alternative? Well, actually, the alternative is where we started with computers. So I remember back in the seventies, the very first time I ever interacted with the computer, I was at a at a friend's house, and his father had a terminal with a and he take his big phone and plug it into the terminal. And it would connect to a computer somewhere else. And he would do all this text based editing of things. And he actually introduced us to a couple of text based games that you could play on these central computers. And and that was the way people did computing, right? There were mainframe computers that existed somewhere else. And then you had a you had a terminal of some kind. And you interacted with this mainframe computer via terminal. That was that was what computing wants. The problem in that era was that the internet such a zit waas was really slow, right? You would. You would send data very in a very slow way. And so it was kind of a pain that the computer was somewhere else. So, starting in the nineteen seventies, people began to develop computers that were smaller, that you could stick on your desktop, and so and so, and that technology emerged faster than really good networking technology. And so it became easier tohave a computer on your desk. And so, by the late nineteen seventies, you could have a computer that would fit on your desktop that you could do work on, and it would have some some storage space and would have a monitor. And you could keep doing as you could, and computers got faster and they got smaller and the disk drives got better, and it just became easier and easier and easier to put more and more imputing power on people's desktops. And so that was how computers evolved. We we all had. We each had our own computer, and if you wanted to work on something, you got the document, you worked on it, and then you sent the document to someone else. And for a while, you sent it by physically mailing. And I remember working on papers with people where I would have a disc, and I get those those disc mailers with the with the with the the air bubbles in them and and send those two people right. Um, and and and then eventually the internet started getting a little bit faster. And so so then you could actually attach a file to an e mail and send it to people, right, and so that part got faster. Now notice you know computers continued to get smaller that continued to get faster disk drive started to get bigger and bigger and bigger you could buy like you know, terabytes of hard drive space now which you know I mean when I was in college we didn't know what came after megabyte you know I mean really no I didn't I don't think we had anybody had any idea what was after mega after that and now you know where a terra and they've they've got things named all the way way out now um I mean that's kind of it's kind of amazing right so so but at the same time here's the unnoticed development here's the unnoticed development at the same time is all this stuff was happening um the internet started getting faster right and so we had the web and we have all of this and you know we have we have we have amazing upload and download speeds and so suddenly you could ask yourself well why is it that everyone has the document on their own computer? Well we all have the document on our own computer because in nineteen seventy eight it was a pain tohave the document in one central place and it was a pain in nineteen seventy eight because the internet was really slow okay but see it's twenty fourteen now and the internet's faster so actually maybe one of the constraints that led us to to be focused primarily on improving the power and storage capacity of the computers on our desktop is actually not so important anymore. And so, starting five to ten years ago, people began to really think much more seriously about essentially essentially going back to the future right of going back to the solution from the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies and saying, you know what, we can put the data in a central place again, and, you know, the whole concept of having the cloud is basically saying, you know what? We don't need tohave everything stored locally weaken started essential point because the network is faster and more reliable than it used to be, and I can't get work done in an effective way from wherever I am without having the data on my computer right now notice, in order to get to that solution, you have to understand why things are as they are right now and what it is that got them that way so that you can see in this case, for example, that the situation has changed in ways that make it more viable to do something that was not a great idea in the past and it's funny, because if you go into gin to companies, for example, every once in a while, you'll hear somebody. Suggest a solution to a problem and there'll be some old guy in the back and I'm from new jersey so guys a gender neutral term but there's some old guy in the back who says we did that twenty years ago and it didn't work um and that's that's always been a kind of lousy excuse for not trying something again that is you may very well re look at a situation and decide that it won't work, but I don't want to know just that I tried something twenty years ago and it didn't work I want to know why when we try to twenty years ago it didn't work because it's very possible that the facts on the ground have changed and something that wasn't at all viable twenty years ago is actually a pretty darn good eye idea right now. And so by playing this game of asking that question, why see the stuff all fits together? You ask the question why? And not only does that help you to understand the kind of causal knowledge you need in order to be able to solve problems but it also be able helps you to be able to understand the nature of the problem itself because if you understand why some things a problem, sometimes you can begin to get some leverage into how it is that you should be thinking about this problem in the first place yeah