As a CTO of a company that runs 20+ projects in parallel, I usually get involved in technical discussions or have to answer questions where I don’t know the answer.
I work with brilliant people. Way smarter than me. They usually know the technology in question better than I do. Often, my role is just helping people to organize their thoughts and find their solutions. However, there’s something about my problem-solving skills that I find very valuable.
Sometimes the questions that I am being asked are very specific, or tricky. I immediately wonder why we have to answer this question in the first place.
One of the most powerful techniques that I found is just asking: “What is the problem you are trying to solve?” After getting a pretty superficial answer to that, I keep asking: “I get that, but what problem does it really solve?” All this repetition triggers something inside people’s minds. They stop simply seeing the problem that they are stuck with and start to view the challenge from a higher level. The secret is to keep asking that question, over and over again, and going a bit higher after each response. This technique helps the engineers to reorganize their entire thinking process.
Often, the problem they are trying to solve doesn’t need to be solved. Or better yet, it doesn’t exist. The easiest way to solve a problem is realizing that you don’t have that problem at all. Also, it’s pretty common that the solution they found and want to validate with me solves a problem that they made up but not the real problem that needs to be solved.
On other occasions (very frequently), coming back to the root of the problem helps to think through the solution from an entirely different angle. I am usually used as a last resource when no one else has solved a problem in my company, but what I do is just try to shift our engineers’ thinking process and help them to take a step back, which usually leads them to the solution.
When you are stuck, go back to the problem, over and over again, and question what problem you are trying to solve and why. Ask it again. And again. You will be surprised by what you’ll come up with.
So, in short words, here’s my recommendation: Try to stop thinking about the solution, and think about the problem.