When You Have a Tough Problem it’s Good to Collaborate

Interview with an IdeaConnection Problem Solver
Gary Vardon has a BS from Metro State College in Denver and a Master's degree from Louisiana State University and over 26 years of professional experience with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). He is also the author of Do It Right and Consulting for Profit published by PublishAmerica.

photo of Gary VardonI consider myself to be pretty good at coming up with ideas, and I like to get paid for that. I like to generate good ideas and hopefully make a difference, to try and impact the world for the better. It’s a good way to learn, you’re looking for something and that makes the search exciting.

One way of looking at it is that these problems are like Zen problems. You have a difficult problem and you think about it and you do research to try and solve it. It’s a way of broadening your background, by getting difficult problems you learn a lot. To use Zen type words you expand your mind.

I have worked on, and am still working on about eight challenges and have had neither success nor failure yet, as decisions are pending. I have a faith in the people I work with as they have a lot of abilities. I have a better chance of succeeding with collaborative work.

What value do you draw from working on teams where people come from different backgrounds?
I haven’t worked on much that is multidisciplinary. It’s more that I felt people were strong in their specialties.

I worked on an organic synthesis challenge. I’m a chemist, but it was a difficult synthesis problem, and I would not have been able to propose a solution on my own. We came up with a sophisticated solution, I helped and polished the solution.

I appreciated the expertise of the people. I wasn’t a synthetic chemist I was an analytical chemist, and I do know something about synthesis, but it’s a broad field. I had a feeling that the people I worked with were professionals in that area, so it was good to work with them.

I think people get down to work pretty quickly. There’s a little bit of introductory banter, but people just get down and start talking about the problem. But one thing that is good about IdeaConnection is that you can meet people frequently. If you were going to meet in person it would be a little harder to collaborate as people are from other countries, but here you can meet and meet again. I get to know a little bit about the people I work with which is fun, but it’s not really about that.

That brings me onto ThinkSpace – how does it help you?
It’s pretty sophisticated software; it’s good to have collaborative software. One thing that is good is that you can put something down there and save it in the cloud as it were, so if you lose the idea it’s still there, you know if something happened to your hard drive.

Do you use thinking tools?
I have one that I got a while ago but I haven’t used it. It’s a cool little program but it’s on an older machine. I worked on organic synthesis problems and I’d like to get some really good organic synthesis software – that would help.

How does the facilitator help?
He submits the solutions which is good, and writes them up. He wants to get contributions from everybody. It’s like, say you’re the foreman of a jury, and everyone has to vote, the foreman wants to get everyone’s opinion. It’s the same thing here; a facilitator makes sure everybody contributes. And he’ll delegate the work and so on.

Do you have an idea of the solution before you start on a challenge?
It depends on the challenge – sometimes I do. One thing that is good is that you have a pool of ideas. I might come up with an idea and so might another solver, but they might not be the best, but you might want to pursue them. Sometimes I have an idea and think this is what I should pursue or it comes after a little research. Some of the challenges you might have to research them just to understand that it’s a difficult problem.

How long does it take you to come up with solutions?
It depends on the challenge; some are simpler than others in terms of the amount of work you do. But there are some where you could always put in more time in. There was once a challenge looking at the emotions of people, an objective way of looking at a person’s emotions. You could write books about that and spend years.

I worked on one challenge looking at a way to recover platinum. So you say ‘well this is the way I could do it and hopefully it works’. It’s not like you can spend an awful lot of time on it. You know there are some challenges where if this technique works then this is it. But some of the challenges are more open-ended than others.

For me the solutions tend to come quicker nearer the deadline, like a lot of students writing a thesis who tend to get most of it done at the end. I have to confess some of that’s true with me. When the deadline comes it tends to spur creativity a lot. You now, you might think about it for a while and do a little research but it seems like the biggest breakthroughs tend to come closest to the deadline.

I like the fact that on IdeaConnection I get to associate with some very good people and I think they helped me to come up with some quality solutions. One reason I do it is of course to win and to help, but also it can help me. On other problem solving websites you don’t get to see other people’s contributions, and it might be that if I were to see that it might make my future ones better. It’s not copying, that would of course be plagiarism, but I would like to see what a really good submission is like so I can model my future efforts. And by being in a team you can multiply your efforts and become more efficient. When you have tough problems it’s good to collaborate.

Will you tackle more challenges via IdeaConnection?
Oh yes I really enjoy doing them. I think it’s a good way to learn and that’s one of my goals in life – to learn science, and this is a good way to do it.

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