Image from page 644 of “The Bell System technical journal” (1922) —

Break it down, build it up

My job often gives me the pleasure of thinking about stuff. It can be hard and painful at times but it’s a mental challenge I’m usually happy to accept. I thought I would share how I work and what my thinking process looks like.

Understanding the problem and the goals.

What I’m usually asked to do is to help structure and analyze client demands and help clarify and precise their needs and goals to make sure that we develop the right site or application for them. At this stage I try to get the big picture and understand what I need to achieve and what I’m expected to deliver. Rather than dig deep into the specifics, I’ll sketch or write down the basic ideas, concepts, key figures that I’ll need to understand my client’s request.

Get confused, panic and sketch.

Nine out of ten times I’ll be super confident after the initial briefing and start getting completely lost and confused when I start working on the project. That’s when I panic and realize that it’s way more complicated than I thought and that I feel like I’ll never be able to do it.

My solution to this is to embrace the mental chaos and just drop all my ideas and thoughts on paper. This usually (and surprisingly) ends up with a useful mind map and a couple of rough process or workflow sketches. The key here is to clear your head, to not restrain yourself and to avoid obstacles. Let it be a #nofilter moment.

There’s no bad solution or wrong answer.
Break it down, refine and go from there.

The first mind map will probably be full of useless or unrealistic ideas but that’s okay. It lets you see all the possibilities and gives you a broader picture of how to solve your client’s problem or request. Try to refine your concepts and processes by removing unnecessary items (this will probably take a couple of iterations).

Most mental challenges are too difficult to be tackled straight away (unless you’re some kind of genius, which is not my case) and need to be decomposed in smaller problems. Look for patterns, workflows, processes or any clue that might help you split the problem in separated pieces. Find a way to break down your big complicated problem in several smaller and more achievable challenges and goals. Solving them one by one will give you the feeling that you’re going forward and improving, instead of facing an unbeatable storm of obstacles that will eat you from the inside out.

Failure is not an option but don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

It would be perfect if it only took a few iterations until you reach the final result that you can deliver to your client or team. Unfortunately you’ll usually end up hitting a wall (or the common writer’s block). This is frustrating and can become challenging to overcome (not because you’re stupid but because you lose the necessary distance to solve the problem).

But fear not! A good night of sleep or a little walk outside will usually help you get a fresh start and find new perspectives and approaches. So don’t give up and try again until you reach a satisfying result. It might not always be the “right” result but it’s still a good start.

User other people’s brain.

Chances are you’re surrounded by smart individuals who could help you solve your problem. If you can (and are allowed to), expose your challenges to friends or colleagues, have them take a look at what you’ve done so far and don’t be afraid to let them challenge you. You’ll also realize that just explaining to someone where and why you’re stuck in you reflection usually helps too because it forces you to structure, simplify and summarize the problem.

This is not the solution for everything and it probably doesn’t work for everyone but it helps me figure out and understand concepts and fix problems on a daily basis. I’m really curious, what’s your thinking and analysis process? How do you tackle complex mental challenges?