Details may vary depending upon which ancient Greek storyteller you prefer, but there once was a poor peasant named Gordias who decided to sell simple wares from his ox cart in the nearby city of Phrygia.
Unbeknownst to our protagonist at the time, at a meeting of Phrygia’s high council, an oracle stood to pronounce their years of civil wars would soon end because their future king would soon arrive at the city by ox cart.
You can imagine the incredulous Gordias as he rode into the city as its townspeople proclaimed him their new king. City elders chose to build a large temple in its acropolis as a symbol of gratitude to Zeus, the supreme God of Greek mythology. Appreciative of his family’s sudden change of social status, Gordias added his own spin of gratitude by tying the yoke of his cart to the temple using an exceptionally complex Turkish knot. (Some ancient gosspis believe it was Gordias’ son Midas – yes, that King Midas.)
As years passed, it become legend throughout the Mediterranean that whoever could untie the knot would become leader of all Asia. One could assume the Gordian knot – today, a synonym for any intractable, unsolvable problem akin to a wicked problem – would have a similar ending to the story of Camelot. A naive nave would saunter along and easily wench the sword … er, I mean, untie the knot and be declared its newest king. But this story has a different twist, offered up by none other than Alexander the Great.
Alexander came across the knot during his conquests of Asia Minor. He took one look at the intricate braid and, without hesitation, used a dashing bit of creativity to solve the problem. He lifted his sword and hacked the knot to pieces, producing the required ends of the rope.
Perhaps he didn’t honour the spirit of the puzzle, then again Alexander wasn’t known for his contemplative patience any more than he was known for a lack of ambition. Regardless, his action was a masterstroke of creative thought. He used a striking solution (excuse the pun) to solve an exceedingly complex problem.
As I’ve discussed previously, the cornerstone of all creativity is the problem, which is either a situation or a mindset (or combo of) preventing you from achieving your goal. The idea solves the problem, and by ‘solves’ I mean the idea may …
- Eliminate the problem
- Reduce the size of the problem or
- Contextualise the problem.
Moreover, to solve the problem, you must also …
- Articulate the actual real problem (beautifully phrased in Einstein’s quote: A problem well-defined is half-solved.)
- Differentiate between the problem and its symptoms
- Isolate the problem
- Know what caused the problem in the first place
- Ask if you know about the problem deeply enough
- Solve the right problem (I know this sounds like common sense, but Don’t solve the wrong problem!)
- Solve the problems in the right order
- Who actually has the problem? Do you have the problem – that is, it’s an inside-out problem – or does your target audinece have the problem – that is, it’s an outside-in problem)?
- Understand what resources – time, money, energy, passion – you have to help solve the problem.
- Understand how you’re going to measure the success of your idea to solve the problem.
This conversation begs a bigger question: how do you define a problem? In other words, sometimes the problem with the word problem is the word itself.
Thoughts on ‘the problem’? I’ve love to hear your own ideas.