Tag Archives: problem solving

Episode 76 — Creative Diversity

creativediversityWhat is your creative style, and when might it be most effective? We talk about creative diversity with electrical engineer Kathryn Jablokow in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • Brian finds it best to have multiple solutions ready for every engineering problem he encounters, because potential solutions have a nasty habit of failing to be fully effective.
  • Carmen jokes that his preferred problem-solving style would be to pull a “Castanza” and sleep under his desk.
  • Our guest is Kathryn Jablokow, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Design at Penn State University. Her teaching and research interests include problem solving, invention, and creativity in science and engineering, as well as robotics and computational dynamics.
  • Despite an initial interest in physics, Kathryn transferred her major to electrical engineering so that she could “build things” and programmatically control them.
  • As part of her graduate work, our guest help build a giant walking machine, officially known as an “Adaptive Suspension Vehicle.” Do any of our listeners know to which corner of the earth this vehicle has disappeared?
  • We decide against describing the mathematical details of three-dimensional rigid body dynamics in a audio podcast; our listeners breathe a sigh of relief!
  • Kathryn authored an article titled “Engineering Styles” for the ASME website in March 2011.
  • Creative diversity can be described by four key variables: creative level, creative style, motive, and opportunity.
  • Creative level describes the potential capacity that one brings to the creative process; this includes raw talent, experiences, education, and practiced skills.
  • Creative style describes one’s cognitive preference for either adapting existing structures and methods to new uses, or innovating completely new structures and methods.
  • Knowing someone’s creative level tells us nothing about their creative style.
  • A well-known model of cognitive style is Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation theory. A normal distribution exists across this continuum, both for the general public and for engineering professionals.
  • Our cognitive style remains fairly fixed over time, although we are capable of engaging in creative activities that are either more adaptive or more creative than we like, hence making us “uncomfortable.”
  • Neither adaptive creativity or innovative creativity is better than the other; each can be beneficial depending on the problem and situation at hand.
  • We perceive those with a differing cognitive style to have a lower cognitive level.
  • Motive describes our willingness to stick with a problem until it is solved, and each of us is motivated by a different set of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
  • Opportunity describes whether or not we perceive the conditions around us as being amenable to creative solutions.
  • Technical managers may have to overcome both “person-person” and “person-problem” gaps.
  • We debate whether companies and managers really want “creative thinkers.”
  • Inventive problem-solving techniques such as TRIZ and SIT can lead to new solutions, regardless of one’s creative style.
  • Kathryn recently helped teach a massively open online course (MOOC) titled “Creativity, Innovation, and Change.”
  • Our guest co-authored an academic paper( pdf) that examined concept maps drawn by engineering students with creative styles ranging across the Adaption-Innovation scale.
  • Kathryn can be found on LinkedIn. She can also be reached via email: kwl3 -=+ at +=- psu.edu.

Thanks to JohnathanMcCabe for use of the image titled “20141129_i.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 53 — Storytelling

storytellingWe talk with mechanical engineer, product designer, educator, and executive consultant Craig Sampson about the importance of storytelling in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • Carmen likes the universality of engineering stories, in that all engineers eventually encounter similar difficulties in dealing with customers, managers, and organizations.
  • In a prior episode of this podcast, guest Bob Schmidt talked about the importance of stories in conveying information about problem-solving methods and approaches.
  • Our guest for this episode is Craig Sampson, who is founder and principle consultant for TBD Innovation.
  • Jeff and Craig were classmates at Stanford University in the early 80s, while both were taking the Smart Product Design (ME 218 A/B/C) sequence of classes.
  • Craig was good at math and science in high school, so he gave engineering a try at the University of Colorado.
  • Jeff and Craig joke about programming in FORTH during their Stanford days.
  • Larry Leifer led the Smart Product Design program during the time that Craig and Jeff were students.
  • Craig has fond memories of watching a robot arm that performed ballet-like movements to the music of Trois Gymnopédies, composed by Erik Satie.
  • Also on the Stanford campus at the same time as Craig and Jeff was David Kelley, the founder of Hovey-Kelley Design, which later became David Kelley Design (DKD) and eventually merged with two other firms to form IDEO in 1991.
  • Craig started the IDEO office in Chicago, which now employs more than 60 designers.
  • Paul Rand designed the original IDEO logo, which saw various alterations over the years.
  • Craig finds the term human-centered design (video) preferable to design thinking.
  • Our guest references a book by Tom Kelley (brother of David Kelley), The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm.
  • Joseph Campbell outlined the classic “hero’s tale” in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
  • Storytelling is the process of making your engineering work relevant in the lives of others, according to our guest, by presenting a believable vision of a better future.
  • A good book for understanding service design and innovation is Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.
  • Craig is a Senior Fellow at Farmhouse, the Innovation Center for advertising leader Leo Burnett.
  • Our guest mentions the book, Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future.
  • According to the drawing by Hugh MacLeod, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”
  • Craig recommends the Dan Pink book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, to engineers who think there must be more to life than the daily grind.
  • Personas are fictional characters that are imagined using a product or service.
  • Our guest has started a class at Northwestern University, within the Segal Design Institute, called “Designing Product Interactions.”
  • An influential book on addressing human expectations is Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things.
  • Our ability to integrate visual and auditory information is pushed beyond its limit by the McGurk Effect (YouTube video).
  • Pareidolia describes human perception of a random stimulus as being significant; this is a form of apophenia.
  • Synesthesia is the phenomenon that occurs when stimuli normally associated with a single sense activate a secondary sense, such as sensing that numbers have colors, or words have tastes.
  • Craig notes that our confidence in a product is completely intertwined with our confidence in ourselves.
  • It is increasingly the case that designers are creating tools, rather than products, for their customers.
  • SketchChair allows people to sketch out the profile of a chair, which is then delivered as a set of cross-sectional cutouts that can be assembled.
  • Skeumorphism is the use of a stimulus that is referential to other products or experiences.
  • Jeff mentions the Dan Saffer book, Microinteractions: Designing with Details.
  • Our guest encourages all engineers to think about how their work might positively impact the experiences of others.
  • Craig can be reached at TBD Innovation.

Thanks to René Wouters for the photograph titled “Storytelling Academy #IEDP-42.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 48 — Troubleshooting


We talk with electrical engineer Bob Schmidt about troubleshooting in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

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  • Adam, Brian and Jeff agree that troubleshooting computer software problems can be a frustrating process.
  • Our guest for this episode is Bob Schmidt, an electrical engineer with 40+ years of experience dealing with software, hardware, and system design.
  • Bob obtained an FCC first-class radiotelephone operator license at the age of eighteen.
  • A Motorola 6800 microprocessor provided the computational power for Bob’s first computer, which had 512 bytes of memory.
  • Bob got interested in troubleshooting when he realized he was being specifically paid to deal with problems.
  • We often learn useful lessons through “parables of problem solving.”
  • The Dog Barks When the Phone Rings: An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems” is Bob’s new book about troubleshooting. Look for the second edition of the book, which will be published any day now!
  • Another troubleshooting reference is David Agans’ book, “Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems.”
  • Bob Pease’s book, “Troubleshooting Analog Circuits,” is a problem-solving guide related specifically to electronics.
  • The “five questions” approach that Bob advocates for problem-solving involves asking:
    1. What do you know?
    2. What are the rules?
    3. What don’t you know?
    4. How can you find out the stuff you don’t know?
    5. How do you know when you are ready to solve; or have you already solved the problem?
  • It’s important to write down what you know when beginning to troubleshoot a problem.
  • Our guest feels that clear communication is an important element of the problem-solving process.
  • Carmen references one of Bob’s blog posts, “What Customers Don’t Understand.”
  • We must be attentive to the constraints of people, time, money and results when addressing the customer’s problems.
  • Henry Petroski’s book, “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design,” discusses what can go wrong in engineering projects.
  • In a 2010 presentation for the National Book Festival, Dr. Petroski talked about how the sciences and engineering are treated when successes and failures occur.
  • Our guest feels that studying the designs of other engineers is a great way to get an intuitive feel for potential problems.
  • Carmen references a Jim Williams tale about design titled “The Zoo Circuit: History, Mistakes, and Some Monkeys Design a Circuit.” This case study is told as a chapter in the book “Analog Circuit Design: Art, Science and Personalities.”
  • Not all information on the internet is reliable, as Bob discussed in his recent blog post, “The C.R.A.P. Test.”
  • It makes sense to ask experts for help in problem-solving, but one has to be cognizant of other demands on the expert’s time and attention.
  • An engineer’s physical senses can be quite useful in troubleshooting problems.
  • “Debug by division,” or “divide and conquer,” is a useful methodology for solving problems.
  • Adam discusses how the debug process is applied in road building.
  • Watching others apply the “debug by division” process is useful means for learning the methodology.
  • Bob’s book offers a few “warnings” that should be heeded if you think you’ve successfully solved a problem:
    1. Correlation is not causation.
    2. Your theory of causation had better show good correlation in your experiments.
    3. There might be more than one correct answer.
    4. Undo your fix and check to see if the problem returns.
    5. There can be multiple paths to good solutions. Your way is not the only way.
    6. Never allow a defect or problem report to go by without documenting and fixing that problem.
  • Additional “challenge” questions that one might ask about a possible solution include:
    1. How did other people solve problems similar to this problem in the past?
    2. Good writers of design are good readers of other people’s designs. Are you a good reader?
    3. Could it ever have worked that way?
    4. Does it work that way now?
    5. Are you suffering from optimism bias?
    6. How complete are your checklists?
    7. Are you doing big debug or little debug?
  • Our guest feels that engineering schools should emphasize troubleshooting as an integral element of the design process.
  • Bob can be found on the web at PrettyGoodProblemSolver.com.

Thanks to César Astudillo for the photograph titled “Troubleshooting.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson.