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Linda Rising @RisingLinda. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Software Development.

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linda rising linda@lindarising org www lindarising org @risinglinda
Linda Rising


Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Software Development

Disclaimer: This provocative presentation is ideally the beginning of a conversation. It won't take long for me to tell you everything I know about cognitive psychology, although I have been reading in the area for several years now. I'm an amateur who has sufficient interest in weird topics and a strange way of connecting ideas that might or might not be of interest to you. Thank you for your tolerance and understanding of my meanderings and I hope you learn a little that might help you in your life.This is not an “academic” presentation, but those interested in more information are invited to ask me for references for any part of this talk and I will be happy to make them available.Scientists and journals prefer positive findings and bury negative studies. Always be a little skeptical!

similarities in the two settings
Similarities in the two settings?


Long periods of focused attention without a break

Inside – no connection with Nature, no natural light

Drab, probably noisy surroundings

Tired, over-caffeinated individuals

my goal useful tips and techniques
My goal: useful tips and techniques

Cognitive science is fast growing, uses controlled experiments, on-going re-testing, explosion in results

Our field is slow growing, few, if any controlled experiments (mostly anecdotes, case studies)

We should pay attention – it might help us do our work better !


Blink, move your eyes from side to side, turn your head from side to side

Look at the horizon, look around, look outside

Stand up

Lie down

Walk – even 5 minutes

Sitting is the new smoking. Sitting kills !

juststand org


standing walking meetings
Standing/Walking Meetings

Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, CA-based health plan

“We actually do have walking meetings at Kaiser Permanente, believe it or not. My team is pretty productive, so it must be working.” Ray Baxter

Baxter believes walking together can change the dynamics of interactions.

Recent study of stand-up meetings shows they took 34% less time and produced decisions that were equally good.

Not all meetings should be stand ups!

take a short break
Take a Short Break

Bio break, coffee break (caffeine is the subject of another talk), smokers’ edge !

Quick walk – effective persuasion technique – walk sideways or backward

I've walked myself into my best thoughts. Kierkegaard

Work on a different hard problem – NOT multi-tasking (can you listen to two songs at the same time?)

Work on a different easy problem – quickly do some routine task

nap rooms
Nap Rooms!

When Arianna Huffington is looking for inspiration, she goes to sleep. “There are many, many great ideas locked inside of us. We just need to close our eyes to see them.”

There are three nap rooms in the offices of the Huffington Post Media Group.

the ultimatum game
The Ultimatum Game

In pairs of subjects, Player A is given money (e.g. $10) and makes an offer to Player B. If B accepts, both keep their money. If B rejects, both get nothing.

Typically low offers (e.g. $2) are rejected. Why?

Research shows that if players take a 10-min break, low offers are accepted. Take Ten!

Counting helps, counting backward even better!

do nothing
Do “Nothing”

Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task led to substantial improvement in performance on previously encountered problems.

Processing a barrage of information leaves us too fatigued to learn. The brain needs downtime.

We think we’re relaxing by distracting ourselves, but we’re fatiguing our brains.

we re biased toward action
We’re biased toward action

Research shows we would rather fail when doing something than risk failing doing nothing

Study of 300 soccer goalies: stay in the center, stop ~1/3 of opponents’ shots; dive left, stop ~14% of shots; dive right, stop ~12%

Even when faced with data, goalies choose to move rather than staying put


“My commute is my most productive creative time when I’m not focusing on anything.”

Chris Cox, Facebook’s Product Chief

drink eat
Drink, Eat

Even mild dehydration affects the brain – always have water on hand – watch the caffeine

Decision-making requires energy, if tired and hungry people are forced to make decisions, they look for the easy way out

Study of judges granting more favorable verdict after breaks

distract the loud guy
Distract the Loud Guy

The loud guy = Conscious mind - slow, linear, forgetful

The quiet guy = Unconscious - fast, can multi-task, knows everything, but is inaccessible

Keeping the conscious mind occupied on some other task allows the unconscious to get through to you

multi tasking sorry
Multi-tasking? Sorry !

The conscious mind cannot multi-task but must context switch as does any linear processor

Heavy multi-taskers have been shown to have no beneficial abilities and to be suckers for irrelevancy

Bottom line: multi-tasking is bad, sorry !

look up
Look up!

Only 25% looked both ways

1/3 listen to music, text, on the phone

Texting pedestrians ~4 times more likely to cross against the light, fail to look both ways.

Those listening to music walked more quickly but less likely to look both ways before crossing.

Distracted behavior helps account for accidents that injure more than 60,000 per year and kill more than 4,000 in the US alone.

nature nurtures
Nature Nurtures

Plants (must be the real thing, not photos or displays) improve innovative and creative thinking

Looking outside improves health

Walking outside, even for a few minutes, improves decision-making (better than walking in urban areas) by restoring ability to focus

cardboard consultant
Cardboard consultant

Explain the problem out loud to something or someone else – a stuffed animal, a photo, or another person who does not have to understand what you are talking about !

Use this technique in meetings – have proposers of different solutions explain their version of the problem (not the solution!) to others

write draw sketch
Write, Draw, Sketch

Typing is the least effective means for description

Writing by hand is useful for solving problems of all kinds

Drawing, sketching are also helpful – research shows that doodlers remember more information than note-takers – encourage doodling at meetings!

write it down
Write it down!

You forget 50% of what you hear in about 4 hours, so write it down.

J.B. Rainsberger, “Get stuff out of your head, now!”

happy people are more productive
Happy people are more productive

The visual cortex of happier people takes in more information so they "see" more and as a result have more insight

Posture – sit up, both feet on the floor, arms open, pull work toward you, nod your head (slouching makes you sad)

Language – choose affirming words “like,” “positive,” find areas of agreement, “yes, and”

Smile – research shows this to be as effective as anti-depressants ! Fake it!

architecture has cognitive consequences
Architecture has Cognitive Consequences

Hard vs. soft chair or weight of a document influences how “hard” or “weighty” we believe an issue to be

Information in black & white makes us more judgmental (right or wrong, no “gray” area)

Temperature of room or drinks influences how we feel about others around us.

Higher ceilings increases innovation. Lower ceiling concentrates on details.

Noisy environments are harmful. Music we like is more distracting than music we don’t like! Fast, loud music interferes most with comprehension.


Brainstorming “invented” in the 1940s – is intuitively appealing – we all get together and follow some simple rules to generate innovative ideas

Research shows that individuals working on their own produce a higher quantity/quality of ideas than those in groups and avoids “social loafing” and “groupthink”

Stressed people tend to conform more to social opinion.

groupthink use champion skeptic
Groupthink—use Champion Skeptic

Getting a lot of smart people in the room is no insurance against Groupthink.

J.F.K.’s Bay of Pigs fiasco is the classic example. After this, Kennedy appointed his brother Devil’s Advocate—to function like a good lawyer requiring group members to examine carefully the pros and cons of policy alternatives before they agree upon the best course of action.

more effective than brainstorming
More effective than brainstorming

Quiet storming after preparation

Independence is a requirement for individual action

distance decisions
Distance decisions

Imagine you are solving a problem or making a decision for someone else.

Imagining you are far away from the issue leads to more rational reactions and decisions.

We are better at estimating others’ health risks!

Andy Grove (Intel CEO) asked Gordon Moore (COO), “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

effort is not importance
Effort is not importance

Most decisions are unimportant

Create decision-making rules and stick with it

Sample rules:

Timebox, e.g. allow 5 minutes

Delegate, e.g. let a friend pick the movie

Taking a break allows more rationality


Have more women on the team or involved somehow.

Preliminary research shows higher quality collaboration, changes the behavior of the male members, increases group intelligence and overall performance.

do food together
Do Food…together

Everyone had lunch, tea, coffee together, they spent a lot of time talking and I wondered how anyone was getting any work done! But the conversations were not about the latest movie—they were always talking about science, suggesting ideas for experiments, sharing ideas, critiquing, giving feedback.

Now we eat lunch in our offices alone, doing e-mail. IMHO, this is a lousy way of doing science. You can't learn anything by doing e-mail.

At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 2009 chemistry laureate Thomas Steitz recalled the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge in the 1960s.

closer more innovation
Closer = more innovation

Recent Harvard study shows that collaborators working within 10 km of each other produced more innovative ideas.

Researchers suggest: frequent, spontaneous, “real” as opposed to virtual interactions lead to more innovation.

small steps
Small Steps

We have a sense that large, complex problems require large, complex solutions.

Organizations and software are examples of complex systems where the impact of any change is difficult to predict

The often-overlooked approach of Small Steps (it’s a pattern!) is a better road to success where the result of each small experiment can be seen before the next step is taken.

Concrete Action Plan

cutting edge suggestions
Cutting edge suggestions

Singing reduces stress and lowers blood pressure

Avoid buyer’s remorse - hand washing - bring a sense of closure to the decision, don’t continue to debate


Research shows dogs in the workplace result in better collaboration within teams.


I now get to validate the information you sent me on Dogs and Development. I moved to Google as a Technical Advisor about 9 months ago and I am able to bring my dogs to work!  It is really fun to see the different breeds on campus. My role is very interesting and I am leading software patent projects and innovation initiatives.  Keep in touch! Kevin Brune, Google

menlo innovations
Menlo Innovations

Software design and development should be a joyful experience.

To achieve this joy, we have changed everything.

thinking tips summary
Thinking Tips Summary

Move Eat/drink (no energy drinks) Color Nature Animals Take a break Sleep

try your own experiments
Try your own experiments

From Fearless Change:

Test the waters

Time for Reflection

Small Success

Step by Step

Thanks for listening!