Work The Problem: Advice From An Astronaut

Last year I read An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield. In it he talks about the NASA strategy of working the problem. This very technique ended up aiding Commander Hadfield when he went blind in space. Here is an excerpt from Chris Hadfield's book that offers you a brief explanation of what exactly working the problem means is in his own words: 

“Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen. We practice the “warn, gather, work” protocol for responding to fire alarms so frequently that it doesn’t just become second nature; it actually supplants our natural instincts. So when we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off – maybe the Russians couldn’t hear it in their module – while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste."

Chris Hadfield - Excerpt from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

This work the problem NASA mentality of descending down one decision tree after another until you reach your solution is something I learned and practiced first hand during my time as a Fireman and EMT. The main reason I think the idea of working the problem has stuck with me so much over the years though is because it is so similar to entrepreneurship. With each problem you conquer there will be a new one that arises. And just like the the limited oxygen supply in space, with entrepreneurship you can be limited by the year, month, or week of runway you have left in your business.

Applying this work the problem mentality to problem solving in business can be extremely useful. I was solving a problem recently, but was not really making any progress toward a solution. I stopped, took a step back, and realized I found myself too fixated on the problem. I was analyzing the problem over and over again as if some magic answer was just waiting to reveal itself to me. It can be so easy to get caught up on the problem when problem solving. I wasn't working the problem toward a solution like I needed to be one decision at a time. While it is important to understand a problem you are facing, once you have extracted the main knowledge you need to move forward there is often very little value remaining.

During the New York City blizzard this weekend I watched The Martian with Matt Damon (I promise no spoilers). Being as it is a film about Mars filled with teams of astronauts the strategy of working the problem is a common theme throughout the movie. It reminded me of the lessons learned over the years. After the movie I revisited the problem I was stuck on and solved it. 

Work the problem is a good tool to keep around, whether you are an astronaut or not. Remember, no matter what the problem is you are facing, whether it be with your company or in your life, take the time to understand the problem and then be done with it. Take your new found knowledge and focus it, descending one decision tree after another until you reach you solution. Work the problem!