Tell Your Problems to the Duck

Linda Rising gave a great talk last night at Agile New England. Her topic was problem-solving and decision-making.

One of her points was to discuss the problem, out loud. When you talk, you engage a different part of your brain than when you think. For us extroverts, who speak in order to think, this might not be a surprise. (I often say that my practice for my talks is almost irrelevant. I know what I’m going to say. And, I feed off the energy in the room. Things come out of my mouth that surprise me.)

If you’re an introvert, you might be surprised. In fact, since you think so well inside your head, you might scoff at this. Yes, speech and problem-solving both work in your frontal lobe. And, your brain processes thought and speech differently.

Rubber ducks

Long ago, I was stuck on a problem. I went to my boss and he told me to talk to the duck.

“The duck?” I asked. I thought he’d lost his mind.

“Yes, this duck.” He pulled out a yellow rubber duck off his shelf. “Talk to the duck.”

I looked at him.

“What are you waiting for? Do you want to take the duck back to your office? That’s okay.”  He turned back to his computer.

I sat there for a few seconds.

“You don’t pray to the duck. You talk to the duck. Now, either start talking to the duck or take the duck. But, talk to the duck.”

I am happy to say that talking to the duck worked for me. I have used that technique often.

Sometimes, I talk to a person. All they have to do is say, “Oh,” or “Uh huh,” or some other acknowledgement that they still live and breathe. If I use one person too often, I suspect they prefer if I talked to a duck.

If you are stuck on a problem, don’t do the same thing you did for the past 20 minutes. (That’s my maximum time to be stuck. Yours might be longer.) Talk to the duck.

If you want the wikipedia reference, here it is: Rubber Duck Debugging. Talk on.

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  1. New PM Articles for the Week of May 30 – June 5 - The Practicing IT Project Manager - […] Johanna Rothman introduces the concept of Rubber Duck Debugging, which is explaining a problem to someone who doesn’t understand…

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