On Problem Solving

The oft-reblogged xkcd comic about being a computer expert puts into words what I’ve thought for a long time. Anyone who’s ever been considered the “computer guy/girl” will laugh simply because it’s true. But why is it true? My initial reaction to this was “Why can’t everyone just follow this process on their own?” I was quick to place the responsibility on the computer have-nots. The humourous conclusion to the comic is quick and easy, however I want a more thorough solution to this deeper issue. I want active participation and a commitment from the computer haves.

I remember in my junior high industrial arts class there were pieces of laminated paper arranged up high above a window that detailed the progression of cognitive thinking, and at the far right was problem solving. It was the last step because it is the most difficult, and it’s not easy for two reasons:

  • There’s always new problems
  • They’re never the same

Despite this, I want people to want to solve their problems. Life is not an assembly line, or if it were then there would be doohickies where the thingamabobs should go and you need to figure out how to make it work without calling over your supervisor every time it happens. Like I mentioned at the start, I’m not putting full responsibility on the have-nots, those with knowledge are a part of this too. Here’s how people will solve problems:

  1. They need to know what the problem is
  2. They need to solve it themselves
  3. They need to be a little uncomfortable
  4. They need to do it anyways

But people aren’t going to start solving problems on their own because of an email attachment taped to their monitor. To summarize the xkcd flowchart: I don’t know everything or even the information you are asking for, but I’m going to find it. This is wrong, because you can’t be handing out fish your entire life. Although it tries to impart the problem solving process with the graphical hand-holding of a flowchart, what this comic should be saying and what we should all be doing is: I don’t know everything or even the information you are asking for, but we’re going to find it.

So the next time someone asks you to help with scanning photos using the software you’ve never used before, don’t ask them to stand up out of the chair so you can do it. Don’t even think of touching the mouse. If they’ve already stood up out of the chair, tell them to sit back down. Acknowledge that this is new for both of you, and that you’re going to help them through it. You are empowering this individual with a new tool. Because the moment that they are not doing this themselves is the moment that you commit to doing it for them every subsequent time something looks different on the screen, and they probably already have your phone number.