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Examing and picking apart problems [Invention Cycle]

So, you want to be an inventor, eh? Perhaps you have some ideas already, but don’t know what to do now. Invention often doesn’t start with a eureka moment. Instead, it starts out with cursing that something went wrong, quickly followed by tearing apart the problem to find out what’s wrong in the first place. Often times, this is followed by more cursing as you fiddle with things or run up against walls.

Then, you sit and think. And come up with some possible ideas as to why the problem occurred in the first place. This is the first step, or the the light bulb step. James Dyson did this with a vacuum that wouldn’t pick up dust, Babbage with running across constant problems with arithmetic in society, and Tesla with electricity. Each one great concept started off with something along the spectrum of “wouldn’t it be nice if this was done better”.

Now, though, it’s your turn. Grab a pen and paper, open a text file, sketch on a white board, use the comment section here — whatever you need to keep your thoughts straight. Ready? You’re going to plough through this short exercise to help you start dismantling a problem so you can reach the eureka moment sooner.

  1. Define the problem. Use the common question words to help you, and write complete sentences full of as much detail as you can.
    1. What vexes you?
    2. How is this problem effecting you? How can you fix it?
    3. Where is this problem? Is it in more than just that place?
    4. Who is affected by the problem?
    5. When is the problem likely to affect someone or something?

Here I’m going to use my master’s thesis as an example of this so you can see how one might run through the example.

What: Obtaining dates for soil erosion in the past is limited by factors such as historical landmarks, carbon dating, and other metrics. What can I do when there are no metrics to be found in the immediate vicinity to date an erosional episode? This is likely to be a problem occurring in such places as a desert that has no trees, in archaeological places where an age older than radiocarbon can be of use, and other such places. If I can figure out how to date soil erosion itself, I may be able to help fix this problem for archaeologists, geomorphologists, and paleosoil scientists.

See, it’s just a short paragraph, but it’s full of information that leads me to think deeper about the problem at hand as well as help defines where the rest of the process may be aiming.

It’s your turn. Leave your paragraph breaking it down and comment on someone else’s to help them see a fuller picture (including mine).

Your homework: Consider the paragraph you wrote and the comments you’ve received on it to write a list of things you need to research.