Monday, March 10, 2008

Supersynthesizers and Solving Problems

One skill, which I think is the single most valuable element in finding solutions, is the ability to completely define the problem. This is a skill useful in both synthesizing through the logical analysis method, and synthesis that’s “flash in the sky serendipity”. Supersynthesizers have this ability and inclination to see the problem from different angles. For example, take the puzzle below.
Puzzle: This figure is made up of matchsticks laid out to form these five squares. Reposition two (and only two) matches to form four equal squares each with the same size and shape as the individual original five squares. You may not overlap one match on top of the other.

Most of us would tackle this by first looking for a solution. We ask ourselves – “Where might we be able to remove a match that would eliminate a box?” Then, we’d figure out where to use that match. We might do a lot of mental trial-and-error, and with enough persistence, either solve the puzzle or go crazy. If you are interested in doing this on your own, stop reading here and come back when you’re crazy.

But a super synthesizer sees patterns in problems differently from the rest of us. Instead of looking for a solution, a supersynthesizer might look at the problem and see if there is a different perspective. Instead of saying “I’ll start by picking up two matches” the supersynthesizer may say something like this. “I have to place two matches here such that they will each be a side to a box. I cannot place these two matches were a match exists today, because I would either be overlaying a match or just putting a match back where it was. Thus, I need to find a place where I can place two matches and form a box that is not already formed.” Or the synthesizer might say “I have 16 matches,” (how many of us would have even thought to count the matches), “and I need to make four boxes. Each box has four sides, 4X4=16, therefore, no squares can share a match.” Or say “I cannot take one or two matches from the bottom box with out leaving a match just hanging out, the same is true of the top box.” (although the logic for the top box is a bit more complex). “Thus, the adding and subtracting of the two matches has to be within space occupied by the other three squares.”

No solution has been attempted up to this point in the thinking, but the problem has been substantially re-defined. This makes the solution easier to divine. In a business context, the obvious solution often isn’t apparent until someone comes along and redefines the problem.
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