Talk to the Dummy

dummyYou’ve hit brain freeze. It seemed like such a great idea at the time, but now that it’s 2am, the application is down, and you can’t find the problem, maybe it wasn’t after all. Or maybe it’s 4pm, and you’re sitting at your desk trying to figure out how to resolve a problem, or build a system. You’re completely stuck, and you’ve no idea what to do next.

In either case, it feels like you’ve researched every avenue, you’ve thought of every angle, you’ve gone over the problem time and time again, and your brain just can’t wrap around the problem any longer. You go back over the same material again and again, just trying to make sense of it.

You’ve hit brain freeze. What’s the solution?

Talk to the dummy.

No, I don’t mean your boss. And I don’t mean that person down the hall you think just doesn’t “get it.” We’ll cover that topic later. I mean, literally, the dummy. In the “old days,” there were software shops that would literally set aside an office for a dummy. There was a white board, a desk, and a dummy sitting behind the desk. Your job, as an engineer, was to explain your idea or your problem to the dummy. In some cases, you had to actually get past the dummy before you could present an idea to a real person.

What’s the point of all of this? Have you ever had that moment when you’re talking to a customer — or just someone who doesn’t understand the solution you’re proposing — when you think, “Ah-ha, I can explain this now!”? Have you ever been in the middle of a talk, after you’ve spent months developing slides, working through all sorts of stuff, and suddenly find you understand what you’re explaining better than the slides you’ve spent all this time creating?

You’ve encountered the “dummy effect.” Not that your audience is a “dummy,” but rather the process of standing up and speaking through a problem or a solution has cohered into your mind in a new way. Somehow, explaining something to someone else makes you collect and organize your thoughts. It makes you stop skipping all the things you don’t think are important, and explain everything. It makes you really think the problem through in a way that looking through a stack of manuals, or skimming through the

There is an old saying — if you can’t teach it to a dummy, then you don’t know it for real. And that’s the point. If you can’t explain it, if you can’t teach it, then you’ve not thought it completely through.

So the next time you’re stuck, talk to the dummy. It doesn’t have to be a real dummy, of course, but it does help if you have some semblance of a dummy to talk to. I used to use an old Woodie or Dilbert that sat up on the shelf at my desk. I’d face them to my little whiteboard, and just talk through the problem. Now I build slides as if I were presenting the problem to someone else — full blown, graphics and all.

But it’s all the same thing — a technique to help you rework the problem from beginning to end, not forgetting any detail, and forcing yourself to really organize the information in a way that makes sense.