There’s a great post on CodingHorror about solving problems by explaining the problem very clearly.
Bob pointed into a corner of the office. “Over there,” he said, “is a duck. I want you to ask that duck your question.”
I looked at the duck. It was, in fact, stuffed, and very dead. Even if it had not been dead, it probably would not have been a good source of design information. I looked at Bob. Bob was dead serious. He was also my superior, and I wanted to keep my job.
I awkwardly went to stand next to the duck and bent my head, as if in prayer, to commune with this duck. “What,” Bob demanded, “are you doing?”
“I’m asking my question of the duck,” I said.
One of Bob’s superintendants was in his office. He was grinning like a bastard around his toothpick. “Andy,” he said, “I don’t want you to pray to the duck. I want you to ask the duck your question.”
I licked my lips. “Out loud?” I said.
“Out loud,” Bob said firmly.
I cleared my throat. “Duck,” I began.
“Its name is Bob Junior,” Bob’s superintendant supplied. I shot him a dirty look.
“Duck,” I continued, “I want to know, when you use a clevis hanger, what keeps the sprinkler pipe from jumping out of the clevis when the head discharges, causing the pipe to…”
In the middle of asking the duck my question, the answer hit me. The clevis hanger is suspended from the structure above by a length of all-thread rod. If the pipe-fitter cuts the all-thread rod such that it butts up against the top of the pipe, it essentially will hold the pipe in the hanger and keep it from bucking.
I turned to look at Bob. Bob was nodding. “You know, don’t you,” he said.
“You run the all-thread rod to the top of the pipe,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Bob. “Next time you have a question, I want you to come in here and ask the duck, not me. Ask it out loud. If you still don’t know the answer, then you can ask me.”
It’s a really good point. Too often, we just haven’t sorted through things clearly enough in our head and that’s why we struggle to come up with the solution.
I read this, this morning. And while I haven’t had chance to try it out yet, I can think of times when I’ve done it. And now that I’m aware of it, I’m going to make a greater effort to think through the question when I’m facing a problem.