I finally got around to watching The Martian (God bless Netflix) the other day. For the unfamiliar, the story focuses on Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, an astronaut biologist who (spoiler alert) gets left for dead on the Red Planet. Lucky(ish) for him he is not dead and immediately embarks upon a quest to make contact with Earth and hopefully stay alive until the crew can turn around and rescue him. Of course, this isn’t a film review blog so all I will say, quickly, is that it’s excellent! The reason I’m writing about this film therefore is because it’s largely about problem solving.
Now, I’m going to assume that becoming stranded on an inhospitable planet, with no humans within hundreds of thousands of miles, limited water and food, and only a flimsy shelter is something we’re unlikely to have to deal with but, as you will see below, there are plenty of basic problem solving lessons we can learn from this film. If Mark Watney can’t solve all the problems Mars throws at him, he’s going to die. So, what problem solving skills does he apply to avoid this fate?
Have a clear goal
In the film, I guess his main goal is to get home. It’s important to have a goal everyone is agreed on and understands. It may be that the goal changes, for example, by reaching one goal you create another or by investigating the problem further you arrive at a new problem which requires a new goal. At each step, make sure to communicate any changes and agree on whatever the goal is at the time. If you don’t have a goal, your various team members might end up labouring under slightly different pretences, achieving answers to problems that didn’t exist or coming up with solutions that don’t solve the issue at hand.
Ask for help
One of the first things Mark does is try to make contact with Earth. He understands that he cannot do this alone. If you have a problem, you should surround yourself with experts. You don’t know everything and other people are likely to bring a new perspective to the approach that you hadn’t considered. Don’t make your team too big, however, or you run into issues such as social loafing. A team of 5 or 6 is generally accepted as an ideal number.
Deal with facts
Watney follows the scientific method which states that you devise measurable tests, observe the results and draw conclusions. By doing this you remove emotion from the equation which can help you make the best decision. It’s quite possible to allow your own feelings or bias to cloud your judgement. Dealing with facts should help you avoid some of those mistakes.
We’ve all heard the famous maxim “If you believe, you can achieve” and it’s not a bad outlook. However, I mean ‘be positive’ so you can inspire others. Enthusiasm, being genuine and being happy are leadership skills that will encourage others to share in your vision. Watney remains doggedly optimistic throughout his whole ordeal and his positivity is infectious.
Have a plan
Being organised is vital to ensure no aspect gets overlooked. Make a plan before you start, decide what needs to be done, the best order in which to do it and who is the best person for the job. Consider time and cost implications and allocation of resource.
Understand the whole process
A flow chart can be a great tool to enable you to gain an understanding of the complexity surrounding your project. It will enable you to know who is involved and what they do, what effect that work has to the next stage, and so on. A complete view will allow you to make sure nothing is overlooked and that the right people are involved at the right time. Learning from their experience and gaining their input could be vital to your project’s success.
Break it down
Finally, I refer to the quote at the top of the article. One huge problem can be overpowering, it makes it hard to know where to start and it can be damaging to morale. Instead, break it down into more manageable chunks, bitesize pieces if you will, and take it one step at a time. In Watney’s words:
“You solve one problem, then another and so on…”