August 5, 2020 | Posted by Bill Simpson
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7 Minute Read

Our CTO, Bill Simpson wrote this blog for MainSail Partners  and we're excited to post it here as well. 

The other day during a stand up meeting, one of our engineers, Ben, shared that he had a breakthrough after implementing a problem-solving technique we had been discussing loosely. The technique involved stepping away from the problem, fixing a different bug, then coming back to the original problem. When Ben did this, the solution magically appeared, and he solved his original problem within minutes. He’d previously spent days thinking about it—with no breakthrough. 

We have all had those “aha” moments in which we are suddenly struck by inspiration. What is it about these moments that allows us to clearly see the answer to something that has vexed us for so long?  

The answer isn’t simple. But it is knowable. 

Ben told me, “It doesn’t make sense why the solution suddenly came to me, but it did.” I wondered if other engineers had the same experience, so I asked around the office (virtually because we’re all at home due to COVID-19). Most engineers agreed: they had done this in the past, didn’t know why it worked, and most critically, hadn’t systematized a way to repeat it. 

That last piece is important. Engineering types want repeatable procedures to execute against. And they need to know why those procedures work. They don’t like magic. They like disciplined and orderly processes that produce results. (That’s a good thing, by the way. We don’t want our airplane engineers throwing ideas around to see what sticks. That’s why the discipline of engineering exists in the first place!) 

So, with that in mind, here is what I believe is the most critical and underdeveloped skill in engineering: the ability to understand and control one’s feelings and emotions. We solve problems most effectively when our mood is just right. Too much pressure, and the brain shuts down. Too little pressure, and the brain wanders. This is about being in the zone and under pressure; think Tiger Woods and a 50-foot putt. Engineers have the same zone, just a different playing field.

We solve problems most effectively when our mood is just right. Too much pressure, and the brain shuts down. Too little pressure, and the brain wanders.

Think about it this way: when you are under extreme duress, you are likely to move to the classic flight-or-fight mode. That decision is made by your primitive brain—the part of us that is hardwired for survival. On the other end of the spectrum, when you are in your most blissful state, the thought of doing things that require extreme precision or analytics is equally difficult. There’s a sweet spot in the feelings spectrum for solving problems, and that is where we need to be to optimally solve a problem.

So, how does stepping away to solve a simpler problem allow us to solve more complex problems? How do ideas “magically” come to us? This happens because our minds are greased for answers once we get an easy problem solved. When we solve a problem, at least for the engineering mind, we get a rush. Success releases dopamine and other neurotransmitters that propel us forward. That, in turn, sets the stage for solving other problems. Suddenly, our brains are more grooved for problem-solving. Our mood is no longer overwhelming our analytical brain. And then, other answers appear. Not because of magic, but because the undercurrent of feelings that was distracting us has been put in alignment to allow the answer to become clear.

How can business leaders create an environment that allows engineers to access this success?  

Start by taking ownership and acknowledging it is up to you to effectively and proactively set the mood at work. Every day, engineers are tasked with solving complex problems that require non-linear thinking. The world around them tells them to push forward with brute force until they break through, but what they really need is to intentionally disconnect from the problem.  

To help foster an environment for productivity, try implementing some of the following:  

  1. Bake the concept of “slow down to speed up” into your organization. Make time for breaks and encourage thoughtful distancing from work.  
  2. Encourage beneath-the-surface, emotional conversations. Help your engineers identify and address their underlying emotions.  
  3. Don’t sabotage workflow with interruptions. Once your people are in the zone, do everything you can to help them stay there.  

By creating an environment that encourages breaks and emotionally intelligent conversations, you can teach your engineers how to have a healthy and productive mindset. In time, this will help them solve problems more effectively. 

The next time one of your engineers comes to you with a problem, instead of telling them how to solve it, ask them how they feel about it, and what they could do to change their mood. Then challenge them to do so, give them the space, and see if they don’t come back inspired. I know it works for me, and I hope it works for you too. 

Bill Simpson

Bill Simpson

Bill leads Ncontracts' technology development efforts, backed by his acumen in the management and development of large-scale, data-driving mobile and web applications and streamlining software engineering development processes. He has held leadership roles with D&B Company, MDR, and Cerebra, in each position leading the development and implementation of game-changing technologies. He holds a B.S. in computer science from Boston University as well as an executive management and leadership from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.