Want to be a better problem solver? Step away from the workbench
EACH YEAR, our special Motion System Applications issue shines a spotlight on the many new and creative ways engineers are solving the design challenges they face.
Leaving aside for the moment the engineering end of the equation, I wondered about the process of problem solving itself – what makes an engineer a good problem solver? What characteristics do such engineers possess?
Executive editor Lee Teschler addressed similar themes in a recent editorial by asking whether the best engineers were born or made. What some of the most recent studies pointed to was the importance of unstructured play and discovery in early childhood, allowing one’s natural curiosity to be awakened and nurtured. Another perspective comes from the field of medicine. I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Salvatore Mangione, a medical doctor who also teaches at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. His question; “does medicine need the humanities?” (Spoiler alert: his answer is yes.)
Dr. Mangione told the audience how almost half of a doctor’s time with patients is spent in front of a screen of some kind (laptop computer, tablet, or monitor) and only around 12 % actually interacting with the patient in front of them. A growing number of doctor’s lament this fact because they believe it adversely affects the quality of patient care.
As an antidote to doctors becoming mere screen-addicted cogs in a medical technocracy, he stressed the importance of a complementary humanities education in the arts, music, and literature to foster creativity, visual thinking, and empathy. He cited growing awareness of how such an educational experience translates into better one-on-one care by having an ability to see problems from multiple perspectives in order to better understand and ultimately treat patients. His medical students are encouraged to learn to draw or play a musical instrument, act or write plays and visit museums.
Two notable examples of creative problem solvers Dr. Mangione cited were Leonardo DaVinci and Albert Einstein. DaVinci was a polymath who broke the rules by being a creative visual thinker, but also an outsider who, in his words, was an ignoramus and an idler. Being able to view things from an outsider’s perspective allowed him to see situations differently and invent solutions that others couldn’t. As for Einstein, a well-known anecdote recounts that when stuck on a problem he would stop working, pick up his violin and play for a bit until the solution came to him. In reflecting on his work, he said “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”
Which brings us back to engineering problem solving and how it may well involve the two factors of play and diversity of interests. Both factors can make us attuned to our innate playfulness and creativity and how we can use those in constructive ways to solve problems. Most of us already know that when stuck on a problem it helps to step away and focus on something other than the immediate problem at hand. Doing so gives one part of the brain a break while engaging another where answers often arise unbidden.
So the message for engineers may be to widen their horizons, to expand the scope of their interests, to re-awaken a dormant passion or hobby. Learn a new skill – a foreign language, a musical instrument, take up painting or scuba diving. Combined with your technical knowledge, chances are these added skills will only make you a better problem solver.