In this innovation tip from Fred Collapy, Innovation Tip: Step Back to Step Forward, he recommends stepping back at regular intervals in the design process. The three things that he recommends stepping back from are:
- a "decision attitude" - instead of just making a decision, make sure that you are asking the correct question and solving the right problem
- users - be concerned less with what they say they want and be concerned more with what they need
- your assumptions - look at the problem with a new set of eyes
Based on my research and problem solving experience I agree that these are three key topics that are important to the problem solving and decision making process.
The quality and success of any endeavor depends upon its goals. If the goal is to research a problem, answer a question, or make a decision then we must first start with the quality of the problem statement. Does it accurately represent what you are trying to achieve? The correct answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer. Know what you are trying to achieve first and then formulate the problem statement.
While working at General Electric's Global Research and Development Center it took a lot of effort to convince one of our commercial software vendors to add a feature into their product for us. However, after doing so, it became a very popular feature with many of their core customers. They told us that their other customers said that it was something that they always needed, but they just didn't know it.
Constraints and assumptions are common problems among inexperienced scientists and engineers.
While at General Electric I worked with the power generation thermodynamics engineering team to improve their computer aided engineering systems. I witnessed many inexperienced engineers using software and methods outside the boundaries of where they applied and then submitting engineering solutions that defied most of the principles of thermodynamics. They were not aware of the constraint and boundary differences between the previous classes of problems that the software had been designed to work on and their new problem space. Also, their experience working with the software on the existing designs had lead them to assume that the software was always correct. This is a dangerous place to tread, assuming that constraints and solutions transfer across different classes of problems.
During my second year as an engineer I was a researcher on a NASA project to analyze the impact of different aircraft wing and engine configurations. Being an aerodynamic engineer I was focused on the impact of the configuration on the combined drag of the wing/engine assembly. Well, for one of the configurations all of my equations and programs were telling me that I had designed an assembly with negative drag. Negative drag! What the .... Not being a big believer in snake oil and perpetual motion machines I knew this couldn't be true. I reviewed all of my equations and calculations with much more experienced engineers than myself and no one could find the error in my calculations. In the end I finally realized that the problem wasn't with the result. The problem was that I was looking at it with aerodynamic eyes. After discussing the problem with the engine team we realized that this configuration improved the propeller efficiency by enough to more than offset the total drag of the assembly; hence the negative drag.
Bottom line, be aware of the assumptions and constraints that have gone into the design and engage others who don't have the same ones as you.