One Person’s “It Can’t Be Done” Is Another Person’s “Easy Fix”

Sometimes the only way to solve a challenging problem is to try seeing it from a completely different perspective. Call that “problem reversal” or “turn it on its head” – the hardest part is realizing a totally different approach is needed.

On my regular bike ride to work one morning I began to hear a strange sound, like something vibrating or metal hitting metal. Usually my bike rides as quite as the Absolutely No Noise Room at the library. Unfortunately one of the bolts fastening my bike rack to the frame broke leaving half the bolt in the bike. The rack was holding steady, though moving around enough to create the chatter. It sounded lousy but the bike was otherwise riding fine.

On the way home from work I stopped at a bike shop on my route – but not my usual shop. A bike mechanic came over to take a look. He quickly declared “Sorry, but it can’t be fixed”. He said that efforts to remove the broken bolt would likely strip out the threads and there’d be no way to attach the bike rack. Disappointing news but I decided to try again – at my regular shop.

One of the staff was doubtful anything could be done. Another thought it might be fixed with an expensive replacement part. A third technician came over, looked the situation over a bit and said “Let me take it into the back. I have an idea.”

It actually turned out to be quite a simple fix. Instead of dealing with the broken bolt – an obviously more complicated job – he realized the rack could be attached to another spot in the bike frame. He just needed to find the right bolt for it. Ten minutes and ten dollars later I was on my way with a good as new bike rack.

How did this bike technician see what no one else did? How did he change the focus from the broken bolt to an entirely different route to the solution – one that in retrospect seemed more obvious. Certainly not to that first mechanic who only saw an insurmountable problem. Was it experience? Just luck that he saw a solution no one else did? I think it was something else entirely.

For lack of a better description, I’d call it reframing a problem though I think it’s deeper than that. To my way of thinking it is more a case of being able to turn a problem completely on its head in order to examine it from an angle that is 180 degrees different. One term I’ve come across that might describe it is problem reversal.

Whatever you call it, this is no easy task to achieve. Our minds get locked on to a single track that we think must be the answer. That first mechanic could only see the problems associated with getting the bolt out of the frame. Once he locked on to that singular perception he no longer was able to see the possibilities for an alternate mounting option. For him that solution simply failed to exist.

What does that look like? This TED talk offers what might be an example of what happens to our minds. Read this sentence:

After reading this sentence you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize the second “the”.

See how easy that happens owing to our attention blindness or fixed mindset. Now if you read this sentence backwards – turning it completely on its head and looking at it from a completely different perspective – you can’t miss that there are two occurrences of “the” in a row. So how can we train our minds to examine a problem, especially one where our locked mind sees no solution, by looking at it from multiple perspectives?

One technique I’ve come to use is to simply walk away from the problem and just stop thinking about it entirely. Consider this not-so-serious example. Not only am I one of those people who reads the local newspaper every day, but I still read the paper version. I also always finish my newspaper reading with the comics page. In particular I set aside five minutes for the daily Jumble puzzle.(examples here). My mind really struggles with this sort of puzzle though I’ve gotten better with practice.

Sometimes I see the solution within seconds. When I don’t my mind can got locked on the jumbled words so that I only see the letters in one possible order. That’s when I just stop and move on to the comic strips. If I still don’t have it I may go off to take care of other things. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not when I come back to the Jumble I can see it in a different way. Just stepping away, even with small challenges, can often unlock the mind. But will it work for more unwieldy problems?

It can, albeit with a more radical attitude adjustment. This notion first dawned on me as a graduate library school student at Drexel University in 1977. I was taking my first-ever computer programming course. We used PL-1 in the course and it was worse then trying to learn a foreign language. Now this is back in the day when students typed each line of code on a single computer punch card. Then all the punch cards were submitted at the computer center for mainframe processing. If the program failed it required a thorough troubleshoot to find the problem. It could be anything from a missing comma to a big-time syntax error. Then the offending punch cards had to be re-done, re-submitted…until it worked.

While it was a real thrill to write a working solution, it seemed overwhelmingly laborious. I just wanted to help people do research, and learning PL-1 seemed like a complete waste of time. Then came one assignment. All we had to do was write the code to take eight mixed-up words and print them out to form a proper sentence. I believe it was “The quick brown fox jumped over the fence.” If I can still remember that you get the picture this was a traumatic experience.

Simple enough, right. I failed again and again to get it to work. I went through dozens of punch cards and many hours waiting at the computer center. While I don’t quite recall all the details I remember clearly where I was when the solution finally came to me. I was actually working on something entirely different. What popped into my head was nearly a reversal of the strategy that got me nowhere. I had to start again from scratch but the new program worked. Suddenly it all seemed so clear. How was I was initially blinded to it?

While that course convinced me I was not destined for computer programming, the lesson learned of real value was the discovery of a few strategies and skills for tackling a frustrating problem with no easy solution. Continuing in a frustrating way with the same strategy, attempting only minor tweaks, only takes you so far. Eventually you must determine that the situation requires examination from an entirely different perspective.

Whether you think of that as problem reversal or “working backwards” or simply turning a problem on its head, coming up with a creative idea or innovative solution occasionally requires us to persist in seeking a solution when everyone else believes it can’t be done. Sometimes it is just a matter of walking away, clearing the mind and eliminating the distractions that obscure the solution – and then coming at it from a completely new perspective.

Have you had a similar experience? What problem did you encounter that led you to a realization about problem reversal? Did you come up with a name or creative description for your technique that is worth sharing here?

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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