Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Thinking outside the box

I had an interesting day at work today. One of the main differences between my new job and my old one is that at my current job everyone is quite competent at what they do, and I'm also the "middle" developer with one developer more senior than me. So I don't spend as much time helping other people with their problems as I did in my old job.

However today we were dealing with a problem that no-one could solve or even much understand. Lots of people had had a hand in solving it to no avail. Now in these situations, what often happens is an unofficial coding free-for-all where everyone works on the problem at the same time with the aim that the person who solves it first gets the kudos.

So we were all pretty much focussed on solving this tricky problem and to paraphrase the situation, imagine a chain of events from step 1 to step 5, and step 5 is failing quite spectacularly. My colleagues were all spending their efforts looking at the ins and outs of step 5 and really tearing it apart and pouring over every line, trying to understand why it was failing. However I was the only one who seemed to contemplate the issue as a whole, and despite the obvious failure at step 5 I didn't want to make assumptions about where the fault was. So I took some time to analyse not how step 5 failed, but why it failed. After spending a few minutes on that I made some discoveries that all of my colleagues had missed. Mainly because they were looking at something else. Using my findings I back-tracked to step 4 to see the problem emerging, then back to step 3 to see the problem starting. It was step 3 that had the problem, and like dominos it was step 5 that exhibited the failure.

I'm now no more than 15 minutes into my attempt to solve the problem and I'm investigating an area none of my colleagues are. I am now confident that none of my colleagues has a chance of solving this problem as they are looking in the wrong place, so I soldier on and after half an hour I had finally solved the problem that no-one else could.

Now I'm not just blowing my own trumpet here :) the whole incident really taught me a few things. What struck me most was that my colleagues were acting in exactly the same way that my colleagues at my old job did. I was always frustrated as I felt people wasted too much energy looking for solutions in the wrong places after making too many assumptions. Not only that, but at my old job I'd often get annoyed at my colleagues' constant dialogue about what they thought was wrong, as to me that was just a distraction to my own train of thought. I'd feel like saying "stop wasting your time and stop speaking to me…you're looking into the wrong thing, you'll never solve this problem". Again today the same thing…I had to put up with a constant dialogue from my colleagues about this step 5 and I just tried to "yeah" and "uh-huh" the talk away and not let it distract me from looking at step 3.

This is a very clear-cut example of what people mean by out of the box thinking, and how the way my brain is wired gives me an advantage in problem solving over my non-autistic colleagues. When presented with a step that fails they get polarised by that step and can't see outside of its confines to contemplate that the real problem might be elsewhere. Whereas my first thought isn't "I wonder what is wrong with step 5", but "I wonder if step 5 is the problem". It's such a simple thing, such a simple concept yet other people don't seem to get it. Now that my new, rather competent, colleagues are exhibiting an identical problem solving approach to my old colleagues I can only assume that their way of thinking is just "normal".

So the sun does indeed shine on a dog's arse some days :)

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