Issue #30: Problem Solving for the Amateur Radio Operator
Today's issue of Trials and Errors (our #30 here on QRZ!) focuses on something that we all have plenty of . . . problems. Instead of a checklist for new hams to help solve their issues, this is a bit more esoteric. But I'm going to give it a go, because I believe that there are a lot of very creative ways to approach problems. Since almost every problem will have an eventual solution, if you can get to it quicker, or find a solution that offers you a better/cheaper/faster resolution, why not try something different?
The other day I was at a "ham party" in my local community when one of my buddies, a Phoenix native who has been a high-speed code operator for six decades and a great ham, told me about a problem-solving episode that he'd been through recently. The "usual" approach for his problem -- a gradually increasing SWR over a number of months, climbing up to over 2.0 to 1 on an antenna that had been 1.1 to 1 for years -- was expensive. New coax! But working through the issue, he was able to find the problem without replacing all the cabling. As I spoke to him, I could see how happy and excited he was to have fixed it with a simple and elegant solution.
That grin on this guy's face was why I love problem solving so much. It's like climbing a mountain in a SOTA activation, and getting to the top. You just feel good that you accomplished something worthwhile!
Have you got an annoying issue in your shack, one that just doesn't seem to "give in" to the usual approach and/or the advice of fellow hams? Or, are you a part of an amateur radio club or national organization wondering how to solve an even larger problem, such as the continuation of the amateur radio services in 10 or 20 years? Either way, with problems big or little, there may be a solution found through a different thinking process.
Here's what I've learned about this subject of problem solving over the years, which boils down to inspiration that comes directly from one of the top "thinkers" and authors of books on this topic.
Applying the Same Process that Scientists Use to Thinking about Your Problem
In my other life, I'm a columnist for folks with PhDs in the sciences or engineering. For more than 30 years, I've written and spoken about the subject of STEM careers, and why we have a shortage of STEM talent in the USA and across the globe. I enjoyed being interviewed by Dan Rather on this topic where my audience was the biotech industry -- that's a niche that encompasses every element of Science-Technology-Engineering-Math training. Any new technology that breaks the mold (whether biotech or ham radio) starts with a blank slate and where people sit down to figure out, "So, how can we do this better?"
My mentor on this topic (we don't call them Elmers anywhere but in Ham Radio) was a fellow by the name of Edward deBono. Just the other day, Dione Caruana (9H5BZ) and I were talking about Edward on the 10m band. deBono was from Malta, as well, and Dione indicated that just about everyone from that island country knew him, "Because he was the founder of modern day thinking." While I don't think that anyone could be credited with the whole "how to think" idea, Edward deBono and his dozens of books, TV and radio shows about the subject certainly changed a lot of minds about the best ways to problem solve.
I met this remarkable man, now deceased, when trying to solve a problem of my own, back in 1993.
Wearing the "Thinking Hats" of Dr. Edward deBono
I was the lead speaker and host of a panel discusson that would be seen by an audience of as many as 1,500 scientists, and I was really sweating while figuring just who I could get on the podium with me to attract and hold onto an audience of this size. I had read Dr. deBono's book "Six Thinking Hats" a business bestseller which had been published a few years earlier. But the fellow lived on the island of Malta and I had no idea how to reach him to see if he might present along with me at my event in Silicon Valley.
I started with the publisher, and they connected me to his agent. His agent wasn't very hopeful, but indicated that she would forward my letter on to Edward. Thinking that was the end of the line for my idea, I went back to find other speakers locally and forgot about my deBono connection . . . that is, until the phone rang one day. He was intrigued. Evidently, the concept of speaking to 1500 brilliant minds about their thinking process was a strong attractor. Add to that the promise I made to take him to the best restaurant in the Napa Valley, and he was on board. (Only later did I find that he normally charged more than $10,000 to give a speech!)
To say that the meeting was a success would be an understatement. For 90 minutes, this man sat in a chair onstage and used a few crayons, an overhead projector, and his wonderful voice to capture the audience's attention and open their eyes and ears to a new way of problem solving.
Solving Your Problem with Lateral Thinking
As I said above, whether the problem is large or small, thinking about it "from different directions" could lead to a solution you would never have imagined. In order to do this, Dr. deBono recommended that you adopt a mindset of wearing different "hats" while you are thinking your problem through. Let's use the example problem (a big one) of "How Can we Make Amateur Radio Exciting and Ensure Operators for the Future?" I'll do a rudimentary think-through using five of deBono's "Six Thinking Hats." (The 6th hat is only for trainers).
White Hat Thinking - This is neutral, and only concerned with objective facts and figures. And for our ham radio problem at hand, here are some examples of what this hat does to the thinking process:
"OK, so thinking completely objectively about this problem, there are about 800,000 licensed operators presently in the USA. Almost half of them are Technician Class, and while some are on their radios, many are not. We want to increase the numbers of new radio amateurs, but even more importantly, we want to keep the hobby exciting for those 350,000+ Tech's whom have already licensed; we want to move them up into new areas of amateur radio so they are even better operators."
Red Hat Thinking - This is thinking that is charged with emotions. But instead of just thinking emotionally, let's apply those emotions to the problem and see if anything could come of it:
"There are many types of ham operators, of many ages. We don't understand one another. The young hams of today don't seem to appreciate all the culture and history that has come before them, and to them the old timers only seem to want to have endless conversations about their health or their yardwork. If we're going to increase numbers of newcomers or even get our existing Techs to upgrade, we need something that appeals to all of these groups -- young and old, digital operators and phone users, contesters and ragchewers. We need something to attract everyone, some aspect of radio communications that is universally of interest."
Yellow Hat Thinking - This is thinking that is sunny and positive, the optimistic view:
"We've got so much to offer the newcomer. This is the most exciting hobby in the world, as you can simply string up a wire outside your house and talk to someone on the other side of the world. There's so much to talk about to the public, so many ways that we can be of service to the community. Newcomers will find these things exciting as well as an existing licensee who could be doing so much more than he or she is doing right now with their license."
Black Hat Thinking - This is thinking from the other side of the coin -- a dark, pessimistic (negative) or even sarcastic way of viewing the problem:
"Cell phones have made the radio obsolete. The magic of getting a signal to move from my shack to yours over the air is no longer enough to get young technology buffs interested in amateur radio. The loyal users of amateur radio are dying off and in a decade there will be half the number of current licensees. It's seen as an expensive "hobby" instead of a way to contribute back to the community or to learn about electronics. The only thing that can save us now would be to start giving away free radios with every license."
Green Hat Thinking - The green hat means you are thinking creatively and using innovative, even wild and wacky ideas. This is where you might voice any crazy idea, from the "free radios" you started thinking about under the Black Hat Thinking process to . . . whatever:
"Free radios? I like that. QRZ did that and gave away hundreds of radios along with GigaParts to new licensees. How about another POTA? Is there a way to combine a POTA-type event into a contest that gets everyone involved, young and old, and on all frequencies and modes? Can we give away "free stuff" for winners? How about if that contest inspired people to talk to each other more, instead of just sending a signal report? Getting people engaged with one another -- making friends -- works for people of all ages. It is what drove Amateur Radio ahead in it's first century."
As I said at the top, the nice thing about problem solving is that it makes you feel good to know you came out on top. While the example I used in my article today (the future of ham radio) is a very big problem, maybe you can help me make sense of it by applying your own problem-solving methods. Use the deBono hats, as it makes it more fun and ensures you are looking at the problem from various viewpoints.
As always, please visit our discussion forum attached so that we can share our frustrations, problems and solutions on this question or any other!
73 for now.
Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica. He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.
Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ
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- Short Takes #20 - 30th Anniversary Interview with QRZ Founder, Fred Lloyd - October 21, 2023
- Issue #30: Problem Solving for the Amateur Radio Operator - October 19, 2023
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- Issue 28: The Marconi Men and the Sinking of the Lusitania - September 23, 2023
- Issue #27: Building our Radio Future -- Together! - September 8, 2023
- Short Takes #18: Tiny Time -- Shrinking the Kit! - August 30, 2023
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- Issue 26: Guest Article - The RFBitBanger and SCAMP by Dr. Dan Marks - August 20, 2023
- Issue #25: Heard on the 2m Band Recently . . . - August 13, 2023
- Issue #24: Cool Devices for Learning the Code - July 26, 2023
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