What’s your problem?

10 Jan

Have you ever spent hours or even days trying to solve a problem even though the solution was eventually simple and seemingly at hand? It has just happened to me. It’s two in a morning and I am writing a report for my statistical course at LSE. I am doing a regression model to predict birth weight of babies based on several factors. I did a few models but could not decide which one is the best one and have been stuck with it for the last hour and half.

At that point my girlfriend messaged me that she had a bad dream and cannot sleep. So we talked about it for some time and then she asked me how is my work going. When I told her I am stuck, she wanted to help so I had to explain the problem to her. And here goes the first lesson. Force yourself to be able to explain your problem simply and succinctly to somebody, who knows nothing about it. Try putting it in a text message! Mine was:

It’s very technical but basically there is a model that works very well only for some cases and so so for other and then there is one that works reasonably well for all cases. Which one to pick…

It forced me to strip the problem off all the technicalities and get to the point.

Then she asked if I cannot pick two models? A very simple question but a very powerful one at the same time. I’ve spent all my time before trying to improve or compare the two models mathematically but have not considered this one. And it is what I am going to do. For certain cases I am going to suggest the first model and for all other cases the second one.

The takeaway? If you are stuck, write down your problem in only few words and in a way so that anybody would understand what it is about. Then ask yourself some extremely simple questions about how you can solve it and give them proper thought. Great insights might emerge!

One Response to “What’s your problem?”

  1. Kyle Zeman January 13, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Sharp post, and totally true too!

    Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    I liked the exercise you wrote regarding explaining something via text message. I wonder if the wide adoption of twitter has increased our ability to boil topics down to their most relevant bits?

    When our team had our senior design capstone presentation for an engineering project, we had to sum up over 1200 man-hours of work into 15 minutes. We kept trying to compress down: 25min -> 20min -> 18min -> 17.5min -> 17min, but we could not hit the 15min mark.

    What we decided to do was have everyone take the challenge of presenting each of our 24 slides in less than 15 seconds each by boiling down each slide into a “headline”.

    We found ourselves hitting 14min and the presentation was much more succinct and clear than before.

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