Step Back to Move Forward

How Disconnecting from a Problem Can Help Solve It 

The other day during stand up, one of our engineers, Ben, shared that he had a breakthrough after implementing a problem-solving technique we had been discussing loosely. The technique involved stepping away from the problem, fixing a different bug, then coming back to the original problem. When Ben did this, the solution magically appeared, and he solved his original problem within minutes. He’d previously spent days thinking about it—with no breakthrough.

We have all had those “aha” moments in which we are suddenly struck by inspiration. What is it about these moments that allows us to clearly see the answer to something that has vexed us for so long?

The answer isn’t simple. But it is knowable.

Ben told me, “It doesn’t make sense why the solution suddenly came to me, but it did.” I wondered if other engineers had the same experience, so I asked around the office (virtually because we’re all at home due to COVID-19). Most engineers agreed: they had done this in the past, didn’t know why it worked, and most critically, hadn’t systematized a way to repeat it.

That last piece is important. Engineering types want repeatable procedures to execute against. And they need to know why those procedures work. They don’t like magic. They like disciplined and orderly processes that produce results. (That’s a good thing, by the way. We don’t want our airplane engineers throwing ideas around to see what sticks. That’s why the discipline of engineering exists in the first place!)

So, with that in mind, here is what I believe is the most critical and underdeveloped skill in engineering: the ability to understand and control one’s feelings and emotions. We solve problems most effectively when our mood is just right. Too much pressure, and the brain shuts down. Too little pressure, and the brain wanders.

Here is what I believe is the most critical and underdeveloped skill in engineering: the ability to understand and control one’s own feelings and emotions.

Think about it this way: when you are under extreme duress, you are likely to move to the classic flight-or-fight mode. And that decision is made by your primitive brain—the part of us that is hardwired for survival. On the other end of the spectrum, when you are in your most blissful state, the thought of doing things that require extreme precision or analytics is equally difficult. There’s a sweet spot in the feelings spectrum for solving problems, and that is where we need to be to optimally solve a problem.

So, how does stepping away to solve a simpler problem allow us to solve more complex problems? How do ideas “magically” come to us? This happens because our minds are greased for answers once we get an easy problem solved. When we solve a problem, at least for the engineering mind, we get a rush. Success releases dopamine and other neurotransmitters that propel us forward. That, in turn, sets the stage for solving other problems. Suddenly, our brains are more grooved for problem-solving. Our mood is no longer overwhelming our analytical brain. And then, other answers appear. Not because of magic, but because the undercurrent of feelings that was distracting us has been put in alignment to allow the answer to become clear.

How can business leaders create an environment that allows engineers to access this success?

Start by taking ownership and acknowledging it is up to you to effectively and proactively set the mood at work. Every day, engineers are tasked with solving complex problems that require non-linear thinking. The world around them tells them to push forward with brute force until they break through, but what they really need is to intentionally disconnect from the problem.

Encourage that. Make time for breaks. Help your engineers identify and address their underlying emotions. Bake the concept of “slow down to speed up” into your organization. Encourage good conversations. Don’t sabotage workflow with interruptions. Teach your engineers how to seek a healthy and productive mindset, and they will start solving problems effectively.

The next time one of your engineers comes to you with a problem, instead of telling them how to solve it, ask them how they feel about it, and what they could do to change their mood. Then challenge them to do so, give them the space, and see if they don’t come back inspired. I know it works for me, and I hope it works for you too.