In my July 8 post, It helps to know how things work, I discussed one of the most important aspects of problem solving, that of, as the title says, knowing how things work. But that is really only one of the factors that enter into solving problems of any type, and especially problems relating to computer software and/or hardware.
When I first started at IBM in 1974 I spent almost six months in school. Yup, six entire months. Nobody does that any more. But while I was there we spent a good deal of time learning about the process of solving problems.
Having worked as service manager of a now defunct audio store in Toledo, Ohio, I did have a process — I just did not realize it.
In fact, I learned my process, or more probably developed it, as a kid playing with my model railroad. I used to wire and rewire it constantly. Because I used cheap wire scrounged from local discards, it was quite a challenge to keep everything working properly. So I learned a lot about electricity and problem solving in general.
But it was at IBM that the understanding of my process was revealed to me.
IBM taught me about KnOWDAT, the indispensable ingredients of problem solving. As with everything relating to computers, this is an acronym.
- Knowledge – It all starts with knowledge. As discussed in the article, It helps to know how things work, knowledge of the inner workings of whatever it is you are trying to fix is truly essential.
- Observation – You cannot even know where to begin solving a problem without observing the symptoms. What works? What does not work? The best problem solvers are those who never take anything for granted. Never assume that the information you have is 100% accurate or complete. When the information you have seems to contradict itself or the symptoms, start over from the beginning as if you have no information at all.
- Deduction – This is the process of deducing what might be causing the problem. This extends from your observations of the problem and your knowledge and past experience. It is also where art, religion and magic mix with science to produce inspiration, intuition, or some other mystical mental process that provides some clue to the root cause of the problem.
- Action – Perform the appropriate repair action. In most cases, by this time, you should have a good idea where the root cause of the problem lies. Make only one change at a time so you know which action resolved the problem.
- Test – Test the results of the action you took to resolve the problem. If the action taken does not resolve the problem go back as far as necessary in this process and start again. You may know, for example, of two or three things that might cause the problem, so for each of those you would go back to the Action step and take the next action and then test the results. If you run out of possible actions, you might then go back to observing the problem to see whether some new information becomes known.
This process works for fixing computers, whether hardware or software is the source of the problem, as well as for just about anything else that might need to be fixed or even something that represents a general non-technical problem to be solved.
Most can be taught
Although all of the steps outlined above are crucial, deduction is the one step upon which all the rest hinges. Most of the steps in KnOWDAT can be taught. Knowledge is obtainable in various ways. One can learn the techniques of observation and how to perform actions to resolve a problem such as upgrading to a new software version or replacing a defective hard drive or case fan.
The most frequent reason that I find some people cannot solve problems is that they have no idea about how to perform even rudimentary deductive reasoning. And my more than 40 years of experience in both the audio and computer industries have led me to conclude that deductive reasoning cannot be taught. At least not so that someone can learn to reason deductively.
I think people can be taught about deductive reasoning, and that it can be understood on an intellectual level by almost anyone. But not everyone can actually do it.
I have seen many people who posses huge troves of knowledge but who are completely unable to apply that knowledge to solve the simplest of problems. As an interviewer during some hiring interviews for various technical positions over the years, I have seen people who could not even begin to solve the simplest of problems.
I firmly believe that many people will never be able to actually reason deductively and, therefore, will be unable to solve problems. Perhaps this is a problem with our educational system or perhaps it is an innate quality that is a result of how some people’s brains are wired.
Wikipedia has a modest article on deductive reasoning and the final paragraph is telling:
“Deductive reasoning is generally thought of as a skill that develops without any formal teaching or training. As a result of this belief, deductive reasoning skills are not taught in secondary schools, where students are expected to use reasoning more often and at a higher level. It is in high school, for example, that students have an abrupt introduction to mathematical proofs – which rely heavily on deductive reasoning.“
The preceding quote tends to indicate that this is a problem with our educational system. I would say a very big problem.
In any event, I did have some excellent teachers who taught their classes deductive reasoning, perhaps intentionally, or perhaps we learned it as a side effect of teaching us how to solve the problems specific to their classes. Either way, good teachers are key to being able to effectively solve problems.