How to combat your bias in creative problem solving

I read an article where Peter Diamandis argued if you want your company to innovate, ask a 20 something how they would solve your problems. This got me thinking, are we unable to think creatively after 30? Is 20's the sweet spot? Would a 15 year old be able to innovate better than a 22 year old? Does age really matter? The answer I came to is, it doesn’t. The amount of time you have spent working a certain way is what matters. It just so happens that older people are more likely to have been doing the same thing in the same way for longer. This is the double edge sword of experience.

We usually associate experience, age and success together.

The more experience we have the better we get at our craft, but the harder it is to think outside of our current paradigm. Goodbye innovation. Conversely, when we are able to think imaginatively no one listens to us, because we don’t have experience and hence must not know what we are talking about. So what are we to do? For the latter issue, the increased societal support for entrepreneurship should alleviate some of that. We don’t need to convince anyone (Venture Capitalists, Managers) to code up a great cloud native software as a service business. But that is a digression. Whatever your craft is, most people will still use years of experience as one of the main career drivers. We want to be able to see your craft with fresh eyes, even after years of experience. Ideally, we would be able to toggle on and off your experienced mind. When you want to be very productive, stay in your experience state of mind. When you want to find new solutions, change your state of mind to a blank slate, free of past bias and constraints.

A logical place to start is to write down all your assumptions about a problem. This is where I started. But most of our bias are not available in our conscious mind to scrutinize. They are lying well protected in our subconscious. A bias person usually doesn’t believe they are bias. At least until something or someone proves they are. So if we are biased, the assumptions we write down are also biased.

To identify where your bias are, consider how the mind works. The mind is an optimization machine. It is constantly looking for shortcuts. Remember that your brain is trying to conserve energy because it thinks it is still in the African plains hunting for its next meal. If a problem occurs and you solve it, your brain will save that information. The next time a similar problem pops up, your brain will recognize it’s similar and push the previous solution to the front of your mind. The more similar problems with similar solutions we encounter, the more automatic our brain makes its response. The more automatic the response, the harder it is for your conscious mind to stop it. (For more information on this process and bias in general see Heathline’s article or for a deeper dive, the evolution of cognitive bias in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology.)

We have to understand our brain to use it properly

A better place to start is by identifying what problems and solutions re-occur often in your life or your craft. Those are the most likely places for bias. To give a concrete example, consider software engineers. We tend to see the world through the dominant programming paradigm we use. For many that is object oriented programming (OOP). But it’s not only an OOP issue. I’ve seen the same bias in people from the functional programming paradigm as well as the data paradigm/machine learning world. If a problem would be best solved using a declarative paradigm, most developers will still apply their dominant paradigm anyway. I’ve done the exercise of writing down assumptions to problems with engineers many times. The question of what programming paradigm to use rarely comes up, even though it should. (For a great talk on developer bias see Bret Victor’s “Future of Programming” talk).

Once you have identified your main areas of bias, be cognizant of that list when tackling a new problem. In the software engineering example we would identify our dominant programming paradigm and ask ourselves when shouldn’t that paradigm apply. But this is not enough, you also want to be able to change your mindset to get your mind into a state ready to break down bias. One way I have found success is by reading the first and second meditations of Rene Descartes’ Meditation on First Philosophy. Descartes uses a first person perspective so it is easy to follow his logic and train of thought. As you read, stop and consider what he doubts, start to honestly question what he questions. For those who find it difficult to seriously doubt what Descartes does, consider that these questions are still being discussed today. Read a modern take on it from Scientific American. Or for the Elon Musk fans see his response to are we in a simulation, or watch Neil deGrasse Tyson explore the same concept. The point is the questions still have meaning today. That said even if they didn’t, the intent of this exercise is to change your state of mind and it won’t work unless you work through the questions seriously. As you are going through this exercise, here are some guiding questions:

If you are truly engaging in asking these questions, at some point you should feel an emotional response. Maybe that is fear, sadness, excitement, curiosity, but questioning everything you believe should have some affect. Detecting that affect can be a cue you are starting to change mental state. Do not stop upon this realization, keep going. Noticing this cue is useful to remember the steps you took to get there. If you never feel it, then your mental state probably has not changed. You should ask different questions and experiment with different ways of getting there.

Rene Descartes. Author of Meditations on First Philosophy

After you have finished Mediations one and two, reflect on what Descartes doubts. Try to get into the mindset of doubting everything. At this point hopefully you have experienced a change in mental state. Immediately return to your original problem or field. Apply the same level of scrutiny to it that Descartes has done in his mediations. Some guiding questions are:

For me, reading the mediations and changing my mental state took about an hour the first time. Subsequent times are much faster, especially if you take notes and rewrite the important questions in your own words. Hopefully within this mindset you can ask questions you wouldn’t normally ask. See things you wouldn’t normally see and suppress your deep seated bias. Truly approach your field with a blank slate. To double check you are unbiased and the process worked, you can always ask a 20 something.

Footnotes:

First Mediations is available online but I added the first two mediations as a PDF here for convenience.

This was an experiment and I am currently the only data point. I’d love to hear how this worked (or didn’t work} for others. Feel free to add responses here or raise issues in the github repo

For those who found the Descartes exercise useful I suggest also looking at the Buddhist concept of self. It is another way to doubt beyond what Descartes doubts, or at least question the nature of what I is, in “I think therefore I am”. One starting point could be the Koan “What is Mu” in Zen Buddhism. I explored this concept while reading The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau.

I have also tried reasoning up from “I think therefore I am”, but that took a lot of time and effort. I did not get any more success with this approach.

I have also found success throwing myself into unrelated fields. For example public speaking, law or medicine. I do this because I have a fresh mind in those fields. After being exposed to how those fields work it gives me more room to question how my own should.

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Steve Froehlich

I help engineers and engineering teams build great software with a focus on e-commerce and digital finance