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Learn these if you want to work at Google - or solve complex problems

The Straits Time published an interview yesterday with Joanna Flint, the Country Manager of Google Singapore. As you may be aware, Google recently opened its office in Singapore, an event that was graced by none other than PM Lee Hsien Loong himself. Google Singapore has been on a rapid growth path since it set up shop 9 years ago. Headcount in Google Singapore doubled since 2013, hitting 1,000 staff today. But they are not stopping their employment surge just yet. Flint disclosed that Google SG will be hiring more engineers from Singapore in the coming months, but admits that finding the right talent is proving to be more and more difficult.

"What I am finding lacking is getting people who can problem-solve. Critical thinking, as well as being able to communicate, is the most important thing we're looking for," Flint told ST.

So, for those of you hankering to try out for one of those coveted positions in Google SG, or if you simply want to up your problem-solving and critical thinking skills, here's your chance to get a jump on the competition...

(1) Know what is - and is not - the problem

When faced with a problem, our mind normally runs down the list of "usual suspects" and try to zero in on the more likely culprit. Using a mixture of assumptions, past experience and dumb luck, we converge onto one root cause and then throw our weight onto a solution to overcome that. Very often, after applying the solution, we find the problem persisting. And when we roll back the thinking and dive deeper into the cause, we identify that we were simply too full of assumptions and that our thinking was flawed from the start. Not only does this waste time, but it may further exacerbate the problem!

Take for example, the fault on the the Circle Line. SMRT was very sure that it was a mobile signal that caused the fault, and instead of taking a measured approach, went on to cut mobile service along the line first for a few hours, and then for a whole day, only to find that the problem had not been solved. It was only when engineers from DSTA and DSO (the defence science organisations in Singapore) came in that they were able to isolate the problem within one morning. How did they do it? Simply by looking at the problem systemically.

Basically, a critical thinker will NOT jump to any conclusions and try their hand at the "most likely" culprit. Instead, she will take a step back and identify the connections between drivers of the problem to pinpoint the real culprit. She will use all available data surrounding the problem, plotting them into a map of events and drivers, and then create a hypothesis of the main culprit. Since this culprit usually has several accomplices, she will also develop several alternative hypotheses, rank ordering them. In articulating her hypotheses, she looks further afield than the normal direct impact between drivers. This requires her to look several degrees away from the main event (the problem) to see what actually is driving it. This may well throw up the centre of gravity of the problem, and THIS is really the culprit. As for the MRT issue, it turned out that it was a rogue train carriage that was fitted with faulty signalling equipment. Quite far from the original assumption of mobile signals, no? So don't simply dive into a situation purporting to know what is happening. Instead, look deeper at the whole system and form your hypotheses.

(2) Isolate the cause

After you have identified the root cause through intellectual manipulation, you now need to confirm it through experimentation. To be fair, that was what SMRT was trying to do when they cut the mobile signals from the telcos across the Circle Line but the minute they could not isolate the cause, they should have moved onto the next hypothesis. That they didn't have an alternative goes to show they were a little bit light in the critical thinking arena.

So how do you identify the alternatives? Simply look at the attending drivers that feed into your main hypothesis. This is because the interconnected nature of a systemic problem creates several gateways to the problem, so there is a need to isolate the proper cause. With your alternatives in hand, you can then map your experiments to really zero in on the one really causing of the problem.

(3) Find the most effective solution

Being critical requires creativity because to find the best solution, you are required to transform your hindering root cause into a reinforcing one, either by eliminating it, or transforming it. The interesting thing about this is that the solution is usually a simple one. While the problem may be complex, the solution is often surprisingly simple. To the untrained mind, this flies in the face of reason - that something so complex can be righted by something so simple? Yet the truth of the matter is, it is.

(4) Implement and get ready to pivot

The final step in your critical thinking problem solving process is implementing the solution. Yet this is not simply a fire-and-forget system. You cannot just get someone to run the solution while you look to solve another problem. Very often in systemic problems, the minute you manipulate one aspect of the system, you may create an unintended consequence in another aspect of the system. For example, I just replaced the fuel pump in my car. Two days after that, the engine warning light came on in the dashboard. So I had to swing the car back to the workshop and it turned out that the fuel-air mix was now too rich. It so happened that with a new fuel pump, the amount of fuel pumped into the system was now much more and coming out more rapidly. My engine system was used to the old pump, so the system could not cope with the richer fuel mix, and this triggered the warning light. The mechanic reset the system, and advised me to allow the system to stabilise - as it is wont to do. This story illustrates that when dealing with complex systems, we can never predict the outcomes, even if we have identified the correct culprit. This means that we need to be on our toes, looking out for areas where other outcomes may surface, and be prepared to either roll back to the previous state (obviously not ideal) or to pivot to a new one. A critical thinker therefore knows thata solution is never final, and what can work well today, may well breakdown tomorrow. This is the nature of systems.

Why it is difficult to be critical?

These four steps are not difficult to apply, yet, as shared by Flint, this skill is not prevalent in Singapore hires. This is cause for serious reflection; after all, Singapore is well known for its educational standards. If we can top global standardised tests for decades, why are we having a problem with finding candidates who can solve problems and apply critical thinking? There are a few behaviours we need to be mindful about:

a. overconfidence

Being confident is good, but overconfidence makes one blind to the actual goings-on in the situation, and with that, a gross overestimation of one's own capabilities.

b. intellectual arrogance

Coming closely on the heels of our excellent, meritocratic education system, there may be a subconscious ranking of abilities brought on by scholastic excellence. Some intelligent people may actually look down on lesser accomplished persons causing them to ignore crucial information for no other reason than for their past achievements.

c. the need to be right

The need to be right can be fuelled by intellectual arrogance, positional power, insecurity or a combination of them. The more one uses position and authority to demand being right, one loses the ability to adopt a balanced viewpoint, and from there, to be critical.

d. authority complex

A person with authority complex defers to the words of the a person in authority without any personal point of view. It is the submission of one's will and intellect to the person higher up in the hierarchy, fully agreeing and adopting that person's instructions and points of view without subjecting them to scrutiny.

This is not to say that everyone in Singapore is guilty of these, but being mindful of them, and keeping these caustic behaviours at bay will help us further our critical thinking mindset, and be more successful in finding the most effective solutions to complex problems.

And I am sure this will put you in good stead, not just in Google Singapore, but in all aspects of your working life.

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