Monday, October 4, 2010

Tell it to the Bear

In 1992, I was on a team that was one of the finalists for SuperQuest and we spent three weeks that summer at Reed College to work on our projects. While there, we were told a story about solving computer problems that has stuck with me.

Reed College's computer lab had a couple of TAs on hand so that students who were stuck on their programming assignments could get help. However, there was due diligence that you had to do first. Outside the TAs' office, there was a desk. On the desk was a teddy bear. Before you could go in to see the TA you had to explain your problem to the stuffed animal. Only if the bear couldn't solve your problem were you allowed to talk to the TA. Apparently they had one smart bear, as a good percentage of the students who talked to the bear never went on to the TA and sometimes there was a line to talk to the bear even when it was off hours and there were no TAs on duty.

On the surface this seems insane - how could a stuffed bear solve programming problems? And yet, I suspect many of you are nodding along and not surprised at all that this works. I have, on numerous occasions, when stuck, explained my problem to someone else, and figured out the solution before they even said anything to me. I have also been the bear for many other people, watching them solve their problem as they tell it to me.

it's a very specific way of thinkingSo why does this work so well? Obviously explaining your problem to anyone (anything) makes you stop and think. However, it is more than just random thinking, it's a very specific way of thinking.  You have to explain not just your solution, but the problem to the listener. This forced thinking through of the problem will often show a part of the problem that your incorrect solution is ignoring. You are also forced to be orderly, go over every part of the solution, and explain any shortcuts that you took and the assumptions made. Explaining your assumptions will often highlight errors and actually verbalizing the steps taken can show when steps are missing. The other thing that happens when you are talking, is it forces you to slow your thoughts down. This can sometimes be enough to pop you out of your rut and let your brain come up with a better idea.

So should we all have a teddy bear to have on our desk at work? I'll be honest, I am not sure I have the courage to have a conversation with a stuffed animal where coworkers could see and hear me. However, I think there is a business opportunity here. You could sell Answer Bears to organizations and then sell consulting services (at an outrageous rate, of course) to firms to set up the bear's desk, procedures for talking to the bear, etc. If you can make it the next technology fad, you'll get rich!  Until someone does this though, if you don't have anyone to talk through problems with, it is worth going through the steps as if you were.

1 comment:

joshua said...

I think this works with a lot of things!