Cardboard Analyst

Have you ever had a problem that has you absolutely stumped … and you ask a co-worker for assistance or post a message to an online forum (like a mailing list) for assistance.

Then, quite soon after you ask for assistance, you finally discover the answer yourself?

This is called the ‘Cardboard Analyst’ phenomenon … where the person (or people) you are asking for assistance don’t necessarily provide direct assistance, but force you to look at the problem from a different perspective.

It’s my theory (which may or may not be backed up by research) that forcing your brain to break the problem down into terms that you can describe to someone else, gives you a new perspective on the problem and new insight into what the problem actually is.

Personally, I’ve found that if I just try to explain what the problem is to someone (even my wife, who’s not super technical), I’m able to find the solution I want. Occasionally, I’ll be explaining a problem to someone in my office when my voice will trail off and I’ll start thinking about another avenue of exploration. Often I’ll thank the person I was talking to for their assistance … to which they will respond “Glad I could be of no help”.

Oddly enough, the person I am talking to has to be able to respond … often asking me questions that make me think about it. I once tried using our cat as a cardboard analyst … but it didn’t work 🙂 .

So next time you’ve got a problem that’s got you particularly stumped … try explaining it it someone. You’ll be surprised how much help someone can be even if they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

6 Replies to “Cardboard Analyst”

  1. I am glad to see this. I have always worked in small shops. One of the biggest problems in problem solving is not having someone to talk to. You can’t really be effective in a vacuum. I look for answers on forums and other websites with tips … but it just isn’t the same as saying the words out loud … even if the other person just nods and yawns. ;-D

  2. Happens all of the time, but in my case usually when I’m talking to myself.

    Reminds me, though, of a problem that I had been trying to solve for days. Asked my boss if he would look at the program. He said he had no clue what the program was even supposed to do so would I step through it first just pointing out the purpose and routines. As I was doing that my eye was looking ahead and I spotted the bug (which I had been over dozens of times). I said, “Never mind.” He said, “I hate it when you do that,” and went back to his office.

  3. I think it’s that you are required to verbalize elements that you subconsciously assume. Putting such assumptions into words (“This API accepts an integer by value that… wait… I’m passing by reference!”) causes two brain areas to comment internally at the same time. You correct yourself because your explanatory words get compared to the assumptions that were blinding you from seeing.

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