By Neil King
Can legendary stories and fables help us look at problem-solving in new ways? Here are a few examples to suggest so
Solving problems usually requires quite a lot of creativity.
Throughout history difficult problems in the workplace, on the battlefield, within governments, in science, technology, the humanities, and more have been approached and tackled in novel ways, using creative techniques to find unusual solutions.
The metaphor ‘thinking outside the box’ – despite its now maligned status as management speak – has come to encapsulate the practice of looking to unconventional methods to overcome a challenge. It refers to creative thinking and using new perspectives, avoiding the obvious, and challenging yourself to find new avenues.
Here are a few examples of creative problem solving from throughout the years.
Nine dots puzzle
This topographical puzzle is cited as the perfect visual depiction of ‘thinking outside the box’.
The nine dots puzzle dates back to the early 20th century and poses an intellectual challenge to connect three rows of three dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines through each of the dots, never lifting the pencil from the paper.
The task is impossible if you stick to the confines of the ‘box’ of dots, but a solution presents itself if you draw lines that go outside the square.
The solution to the puzzle, obvious though it seems after the event, serves to show that the conundrum only seems difficult because people reduce the space available to them to the boundaries set by the dots. Break those boundaries, and you find your task much more simple.
Egg of Columbus
The apocryphal story of Christopher Columbus and his egg may or may not be true, but it offers an example of how to take control of a situation by acting creatively and unexpectedly.
The tale tells of a dinner for Spanish nobles and 15th century Italian explorer Columbus, at which the guests played down Columbus’s achievements in discovering the West Indies, saying that anybody who undertook a similar journey would have been able to find the islands.
Columbus is said to have responded by asking for a whole egg to be brought to the table, and challenging his dining companions to make the egg stand on its end without any help or aid.
All the nobles tried and failed, prompting Columbus to tap the egg gently on the table, breaking it slightly, which allowed it to stand on its end.
When the nobles cried that they could have done the same, Columbus made his point that once a feat has been done, anybody knows how to do it.
But the story also goes to prove that there is always more than one way to look at a problem. And that sometimes a simple explanation can be found for a seemingly impossible task.
The legend of the Gordian Knot is rooted in the history of Alexander the Great, and is used as an example of producing the required ends by using a method outside of the ‘rules’.
The story goes that the Gordian Knot was an intricate knot binding an ox-cart to a post, which was almost entirely untiable. Many had tried to untie the knot, and all had failed.
Presented with the challenge, Alexander could not find the end of the knot in a bit to loosen it, so instead drew his sword and sliced the knotting in half, thus reducing it to scraps of rope.
The so-called Alexandrian Solution shows how any solution can be found to any problem if you bend the rules in an authoritative way.
A slightly less dramatic retelling of the story suggests that the King removed a pin which secured the knot, allowing him to find two ends of rope, and hence achieve his aim.
Either way, the puzzle of the impossible Gordian Knot offers creative people a template for working around big challenges.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, breakthroughs always seem elusive. Which is why the phrase ‘Eureka!’ is such a blessing.
The term has come to signify the ‘aha moment’, which accompanies the sudden understanding of a previously incomprehensible problem or concept – usually by chance.
The eureka effect is named after the word that Greek polymath Archimedes allegedly yelled when he stumbled upon the solution of how to measure the volume of an irregular object.
According to legend, Archimedes had been tasked by the local king to detect whether a crown was pure gold, or if the goldsmith had added silver. Stumped by the conundrum, he visited a local bath where he noticed that water is displaced when his body sank into the bath, giving him a way of measuring density. He immediately leapt out of the bath and ran home crying “eureka” (I found it).
The general message of Archimedes’ experience seems to be that as long as you keep your eyes open, the world around you can provide the creative solution to any number of problems. Even while having a wash!