Of late, I have been very fascinated about how different people solve problems. The approach you choose says a lot about who you are as a person and it is a good indicator of what you might become good or great at.
I’ll take a few examples from my life. I think about them often and they tell me who I am as a person.
Example 1: When I was trying to get into NLS, Bangalore back in 2002, it was a little known college. I didn’t know anyone personally who had prepared for it (let alone gotten in). I went online and joined an online forum (Law School Tutorials) but everyone there was a kid like me. I needed to speak with someone who knew what it took to get in (this is before LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Orkut).
My solution: I made a website on Yahoo Geocities – it was a page appealing people to advice me, and a call to collaborate and prepare together for people who might be preparing in Chandigarh. It was an odd idea – without much chance of succeeding. But I was desperate. As it turned out, a guy at NLS Bangalore was searching for something on Altavista and he came across the website and was kind enough to write to me. Once that happened, I ensured that I got to know everything from him to be able to get in.
Example 2: Coming from Chandigarh (where my general behaviour, after studying in government schools, was one of complete disrespect for authority i.e. teachers and most things academic), NLS was a very different place. Everyone was academically oriented and we were expected to engage with the research materials and write 4 academic papers every 3 months. During the first month, the seniors take you through a detailed tour of the vast library with arcane academic journals from across the world. The tour is meant to familiarise newcomers with the library, so that they would be able to research easily.
My solution: Something in me told me that knowing the library well would help me in excel and do better than my peers. I then decided to make my own map of the library which had clear markings of which books/journals were kept where (I was 18 then). Of course, this was a complete disaster because the problem wasn’t knowing where the academic books/journals were kept, but actually reading them (which I never liked doing).
I often think about how my brain wanted to solve the higher “academic achievement” problem by making a map of the library. It is very scary for me – that my brain thought that it was a solution. I mostly struggled through the academic part of my time in college and mostly liked doing things outside the classroom.
Example 3: As a low CGPA lazy bugger, I used to miss the first class in the morning invariably (because I would be watching movies the previous night). Attendance requirements were strictly followed (if you went below 75%, you’d lose a year). I had an attendance shortage in the last trimester, which kind of blew up into a large issue (I had spoken in public against the Undergraduate Council chairperson, and come up two classes short in the same trimester. She made sure that I felt the pain. Ultimately, I got off because there was someone else with a much higher attendance shortage whom they could not have flunked).
Now, in the following trimester as well, I was again short of attendance in a course (because it used to be the first class in the morning). Towards the middle of the trimester, I realised that even if I attended all the classes for that course from then on, I would still fall short of 75%.
My solution: I went to my professor and begged him to hold two extra classes (2/2 would have made me cross above 75%). After much cajoling, he relented because I told him that we could hold the two extra classes as a movie screening and I would spread the word about the extra classes. That way, he wouldn’t have to teach extra, my classmates didn’t mind the 2 extra sessions because it was a movie screening and I got the required attendance to help me pass. I got through that year.
However, looking back at these 3 examples, I find it difficult to draw any general conclusions, but I find it interesting to think about.
Last 4 years have been only about problem solving. So it has become an unconscious blur in terms of how many problems got solved and re-solved.
Now I find that there are 3 kinds of problems:
Problems that others have solved before me: Let’s say I’m facing a problem X. Instead of looking for solutions to X, I just look for people who have solved X before. In 90% of the cases, speaking with someone who has solved X before is the easiest way to learn how to solve that problem.
Problems which can be solved with creativity: These are problems where there are no obvious solutions but if you think differently, you can solve things. You need to take a break, relax, keep thinking about these problems and then the answer might or might not come in the shower.
Problems which don’t have solutions: Of course, there are tons of problems where there are no ready-made solutions (like e.g. finding a technical co-founder), and all it requires is to keep at it and wait for the solution to present itself (this has been the most difficult to learn and deal with). Most of the tough problems have a huge element of things which are not in your control – therefore, one feels frustrated, when it is just a question of patience.
Building Akosha has involved a lot of problems which fell in the first and the last category.
Two things that work:
– I’ve found parallel processing several parts of the solution to the same problem to be very useful. If you need to do 10 things to solve a problem, I usually find it better to try all 10 in parallel rather than serially.
– Some problem-solving frameworks really help. You should see a McKinsey hand apply the Peter Drucker Five Forces framework to the most obvious thing and see him/her come up with such non-obvious solutions. In the start up context, there is the customer development process, the lean methodology, the growth hacking etc. All of them are useful to think through problems, but it is typically difficult to apply them with a lot of discipline. There is no McKinsey for startups where you are taught a specific way of solving problems.