It happens to everyone sooner or later. You get stuck in an area where you’re meant to be an expert. We’ve all been there.
Then because you’re a human your ego takes over. “I’m gonna show this problem who’s boss and solve it all by myself.”
Time passes. Coffee is drunk. Eventually, a few hours later, you finally crack and decide to ask for help. So you find someone – either an expert in the field or an inexpert in the field, and say, “Can you help me with a problem please?”
This is where the magic starts, as you now have to tell them the story of the problem you’re trying to solve. Terry Pratchett said “The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’).” “In reality, we are Pan Narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.” He had a point. Whenever we talk to each-other, we tell each-other stories. “How was your day?” “Did you have a good weekend?” “How’s your dad doing?” These questions all have stories as answers.
This is where the magic happens. When we were trying to solve the problem on our own, we use a small and old part of our brains. When we tell the story we get into all of those fun human outer parts of the brain. We traverse both hemispheres, bringing in language centres and creative parts as well as problem solving parts. In a CAT scanner, our brains light up like a fireworks party. In order to tell the story of the problem, we use much more of our brain than we did when we tried to solve it in isolation!
If we’re really lucky, the helper does an even more magical thing, they ask us dumb questions. I’ve often heard people say “there are no dumb questions” but it’s better than that, I say “Dumb questions are the best. They cause the story teller to rethink their understanding of the problem from the perspective of the questioner.” Telling a story and answering dumb questions make us think about the problem differently!
Now for the final piece of magic. Have you ever finished off the story of your problem with these words? “Never mind, I just worked it out.”
This is a repeatable pattern experienced by just about every human on the planet.
So how can we do this better? We can understand that complex problems are different to complicated ones and treat them differently. To solve a complicated problem, you probably want a nice quiet office space with few interruptions so you can concentrate. To solve a complex problem you need other people and a space where its ok to talk out loud all the time. A space with a shared sketching environment (like a whiteboards or Mural / Miro) so you can draw things together as you tell each other stories and ask each other dumb questions.
If this is how our human brains work, then surely we should optimise our working to be more humane? Lets spend less time being stuck, and instead tell more stories and ask more dumb questions of each other.