If you’re facing a difficult problem, one way to start untangling the solution is to write.
That’s how Duncan Anderson, co-founder of edtech firm Edrolo, finds he can articulate and solve complex, meandering problems, as well as communicate at scale to his company and stakeholders.
“Rid yourself of the inbuilt schemas you’ve inherited from the education system about English,” says Anderson.
“Writing is thinking, and the more you write out your problems, the more you’ll start to slowly figure them out.”
Anderson was grappling with some high level difficulties when he suddenly saw the link between communications and problem solving.
“Maths is just communication times problem solving displayed in numbers, science also uses numbers to communicate the parts of a chemical equation,” he says.
“So I started writing words to get the problems out of my head and laid out, and I found I could articulate things better in writing than by talking.
“After starting to write, I immediately begin thinking in a more strategic way.”
It was the process of extracting thoughts and ideas out of his head that enabled Anderson to begin breaking issues down into their components and discover new ways in which to think about them.
“Writing has fundamentally leveled up my ability to problem solve,” he says.
“Literally for any problem I don’t have a good answer for - and I know when I don’t - I just start writing it out.”
Give your mind some room
While our brains are incredible and mysterious, we often reach limits of how many different, yet connected thoughts we can hold in our minds.
Anderson points to research first published in Nature Neuroscience Journal, which suggests we have four working parts in our memories to solve problems.
“Sometimes, the more you think about something, the more confused you get,” he says. “And that’s because you’re trying to synthesise more than four pieces.”
By writing out the parts of the problem you’re struggling with, you can make space in your mind to consider more pieces.
As such, writing isn’t just a better way to communicate, it’s a way of solving problems with more than four moving parts.
“Even just knowing what problems you actually need to solve is quite hard too,” says Anderson.
“The better you can articulate the jobs to be done, the better your results and solutions will be,” he says, adding that Clayton Christiansen’s 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” gives founders a powerful insight into establishing which jobs need to be done.
How? (To code is to write)
While we pour words from our keyboards every day, Anderson says there’s a faulty blocker stopping people working in the science and technology sectors from fully leveraging this powerful problem solving tool.
“Lots of us have been taught, since school, that writing well is getting a 10/10 in English,” he says.
“But to start with when I write, I’m not talking about beautiful words or nice syntax, I’m talking about writing as problem solving and just getting thoughts onto a page. I find some people get trapped thinking they are not an English or humanities person.”
Anderson uses coding as an example, arguing the practice itself is a form of communication.
“When you’re coding, you’re effectively writing a little program, aka blog, to solve a problem you have,” he says.
“Developers give each other code reviews all day, and whether they know it or not, they are looking for good quality writing and when they find it, they know immediately that’s sexy code - aka writing.”
Writing in a clear way is the same, he says, especially when using it to unravel a complicated idea or share a conclusion. And just as in coding, the simpler and clearer the program, the more powerful the results.
“How much CPU do you need to spin to crunch your code?” he asks. “A good program - or blog - will accomplish the same outcome with a quarter of the amount of resources and many less lines of code.”
“The equivalent of resource hungry program is the cognitive load in a human, as in, how much effort is needed for a person to understand your blog or email? Try and write so your recipients use the least amount of cognitive load.”
Not everyone is going to sit down and knock out thousands of words in a morning, but Anderson says the key to getting started is to open a document and just start by describing the problem you have.
“You need to think and then translate what you’re thinking into words,” he says. “Who cares how it sounds to start with, who cares what it looks like, the point is to begin using words as solutions to problems.”
Anderson tends to write in spreadsheets, a method that looks dense to the outsider, but helps him organise and assign thoughts to different problems.
“You figure out your structure as you go, but it’s incredible how your brain will begin suggesting different formats,” he says.
Perhaps a table, a chart, a list or a flowchart could better organise your thinking and thanks to the beauty of multimedia web pages, there are thousands of programs designed to help you insert and edit different assets.
But while writing is a powerful communication tool for large groups of stakeholders, Anderson says unravelling the problem itself and then crafting solutions is the best part.
“I need to stay flexible because I never know where I’m going,” he says.
“It’s like this little journey and it’s really fun. Writing helps you let your brain wander but captures how it got there.”
Duncan Anderson’s writing can be found here.
Tips for a blank page
- Start as if you were writing a diary entry. By describing the situation or how you’re feeling, you might find the problem itself will emerge and you will be able to distinguish your own behavioural biases. No one ever has to read it.
- Give yourself a Q&A (like Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, How much?). Answering top level questions will definitely throw up more questions which are likely to target your thinking to a more precise area of the problem.
- Don’t show, or do show. Remember, this writing is a process to get you to a solution. You don’t have to show anybody the work, it’s just a way of exercising new ways of problem solving. But getting feedback on your thinking by sharing can sometimes spark a whole new team discussion. Your call.
Tips to writing simply
- Read what you’ve written out loud. This will help immensely with clarity and will help you write the way you talk, as if you were explaining a concept to your Mum. You’ll find the gaps or the unclear bits very quickly.
- Build up your vocabulary. We are limited when we cannot describe what we need, want, see or understand. Give yourself more words as tools that offer range. Each word is a solution to a problem. They are inherited wisdom from past generations. The more words you know the solutions to problems you have.
- Dispense with jargon. A widespread vocabulary doesn’t mean bogging yourself or your readers down in technical language. Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it enough.