Overcoming Frozen Thinking in Software Development: Practices and Questions for Problem Solving

In Leonard Mlodinow’s book Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change, the concept of “frozen thinking” emphasizes the importance of flexible and adaptive thinking in a rapidly changing world. Mlodinow argues that rigid thought patterns can impede our ability to solve complex problems and adapt to new situations. Through examining various cognitive and psychological processes, he encourages readers to develop more elastic thinking. This involves embracing ambiguity, challenging assumptions, and considering alternative perspectives.

As a long-time software developer, I often find myself pulling from experience when making decisions. I usually think of this as a good thing. I know something has worked well in the past, so it must be a good decision this time too. But as I read about frozen thinking, I wondered if I might have a blind spot.

Wanting to delve deeper into the topic – specifically how frozen thinking can impact a senior software developer – I did what I’ve done my whole career and started Googling. But I didn’t find anything very satisfactory, so in the spirit of breaking out of frozen thinking, I started a discussion with GPT-4. And it was pretty good! That discussion was the foundation for this blog post.

A Problem for Senior Developers

Frozen thinking can be an issue for a senior software developer in several ways:

  1. Resistance to new technologies or methodologies. A senior developer with frozen thinking might be reluctant to adopt or explore new technologies, programming languages, or software development methodologies. This can limit their ability to stay current with industry trends and best practices, which can impact their job performance and the overall success of projects.
  2. Inability to adapt to change. Software development projects often involve changes in requirements, design, or implementation. A developer with frozen thinking might have difficulty adapting to these changes, leading to delays, increased costs, and conflicts with team members.
  3. Hindered problem-solving. A senior developer should be skilled in identifying and solving complex problems. Frozen thinking can limit their ability to consider alternative solutions and approaches, which can negatively impact the quality and efficiency of their work.
  4. Reduced collaboration and communication. A developer with frozen thinking might be less likely to listen to or consider the ideas and suggestions of others, leading to poor communication, reduced collaboration, and potential conflicts within the team.
  5. Stifled innovation. Innovation is crucial in software development to create better solutions and stay competitive. A senior developer with frozen thinking might be less likely to innovate or encourage innovation in the team, potentially hindering the team’s ability to create cutting-edge solutions.

Daily Practices

Here are some daily practices that can help mitigate frozen thinking when solving problems:

  1. Continuous learning. Dedicate time to learn new technologies, programming languages, and methodologies. This could involve reading articles, attending webinars, or taking online courses.
  2. Mindfulness and self-reflection. Practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, to improve self-awareness and become more conscious of your thought patterns and biases.
  3. Journaling. Keep a journal to track your thoughts and ideas. Reflect on your problem-solving process, and analyze any instances of frozen thinking.
  4. Collaboration. Engage in regular discussions with team members and actively seek feedback on your ideas and solutions.
  5. Challenging assumptions. Periodically review your assumptions and beliefs, and be open to questioning them.

Ask Yourself

In addition to the daily practices, here are some questions a developer can ask when solving problems:

  1. What assumptions am I making about this problem or solution?
  2. Have I considered alternative perspectives or solutions?
  3. Am I being influenced by any biases or emotional attachments?
  4. How would someone with a different background or expertise approach this problem?
  5. Am I open to feedback, and have I sought input from others?
  6. What evidence supports my chosen solution, and have I considered any contradictory evidence?
  7. How might the problem or its requirements change over time, and how adaptable is my solution?
  8. Are there any potential risks or drawbacks to my solution I haven’t considered?
  9. What can I learn from past experiences or mistakes when approaching this problem?
  10. Am I willing to change my approach if new information becomes available?

Overcoming Frozen Thinking

By incorporating these daily practices and questions into your routine, you can develop a more flexible, open-minded approach to problem-solving in software development. Overcoming frozen thinking leads to better solutions while also fostering a collaborative and innovative environment on your team. As a senior software developer, being aware of and addressing frozen thinking can significantly impact your professional growth and the overall success of your projects.


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