An engineer on safari—what African animals teach about problem solving—part 1

-February 20, 2013

Editor’s note: Every so often, an article, written by a very capable technical contributor, gets published on EDN in one of my Design Centers for a special reason. My goal and EDN’s goal is to publish articles and features on what's really going to make a difference for designers of next-gen systems/devices and ideas to overcome current-day design problems. Although this is not a technical article, Schmitz’s article has struck a chord in me and I want to share it with you; especially those who have been in the industry for 10 years or less (IEEE GOLD members, for example).
I love nature, especially animals. We can learn from them. She has turned her visit to Botswana into an entertaining and educational exercise in problem solving techniques she has garnered from the natural instincts of these amazing animals living and co-existing in the wild. The editor’s notes I have added are not to complete or enhance her article because it stands alone. I only interject these personal perspectives to share a bit of my 40 years of experiences in electronics with
EDN readers in this enlightening article Schmitz has created.

—Steve Taranovich

Africa is as wild and wonderful as I imagined.  What I didn’t expect, was to learn lessons about problem solving that I could apply to my career as an engineer back home in Silicon Valley.  After the first few sightings being “star struck” by seeing so many different species in their natural habitat, I started paying more attention to their behavior, their interactions and their choices.  Many of those turned into life lessons for me to bring home.  The top ten are presented here along with photos I took this past November in Botswana.

Number 1:  Face your problem head on.  For an animal in Africa, the problem is usually an enemy that wants to eat one of their young ones.  If our truck approached a herd of elephants, the first thing they would do is turn and face us (Figure 1). While that made for a great photo opportunity, they were placing the adults in front of the youth, waving their ears to look bigger, putting their trunks up to smell us, and making a blockade.  Antelope and zebra also always turn to face a potential attacker.  In fact, one day we encountered several zebra intently staring toward the same grassy area.  Our guide stopped and said, “Watch.”  About 30 seconds later a lion’s head popped up from between the reeds.

Figure 1 Elephants turn and face us as we approach in the truck.

Notice that all of these animals didn’t accept a peripheral view of the problem while they multitask five or six other priorities.  Even if they were hungry or dehydrated, they do not continue eating or drinking while diverting part of their attention to the predator.  All nonessential activity is stopped and complete focus is given to the problem.  In this way, the group can act together and have the highest probability to remain safe.

Editor’s note: The most frequent cases I experienced in my career were when
a problem came up with an IC that was either an inherent design error or a quality issue. I have seen many, many engineers hesitate to tell the customer the full truth about the issue immediately. Procrastination just makes the situation worse when the customer finally finds out. Face the problem head on quickly and honestly with a plan of action to remedy the situation in the short- and long-term and you might be pleasantly surprised with the customer’s reaction.

Number 2:  Take time to listen.  With no cell phone, radio, TV, or other entertainment, necessity forced me to take a lot of time to listen to the sounds of the African wild surrounding our campsites.  That’s not the case with problems in engineering.  We don’t usually clear our schedules and sit quietly waiting for that big phone call or that weekend-ruining email.  For us, it normally feels like problems come “out of the blue,” or just blindside us.  I’ll bet there may be warning signs we just don’t notice.  For instance, the animals of Africa work together to avoid becoming “recycled” (the guide used this kinder word to represent the predator catching and eating a meal).  Birds are often the first to sound the alarm of an approaching predator or predators (Figure 2). Baboons also happily join the chattering.  In fact, by the time predators prowl through an area, it can be clear of the thousands of creatures that were grazing there just minutes before.

Figure 2 These Cape Turtle Doves are perched high in a tree to get a good view of the area. Their call is nicknamed by the locals as "Work harder, drink lager."

Listening is always a good idea.  I don’t think many of us would disagree with that—we usually just feel too busy to know when we should take the time to listen.  Maybe a little each day?  Since I didn’t see any African animals practicing meditation or yoga, I won’t suggest that.  Instead, I experienced them in a state of hyperawareness.  The luxury of a large group (like antelope or elephants) meant that they could take turns listening.  Maybe that is the key to our success in the business world—we have to trust the chain of command, trust that each manager listens to his/her reports and can relay relevant information effectively.

Editor’s note: My grandmother used to say that God gave us one mouth, but two ears, so we should listen at least twice as much as we speak. A good listener will find out the facts quickly and resolve a problem or answer a question more promptly.

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