The Puzzle Is a Picture0
By Frank J. Rich
Most of us find the path to solutions by methods unique to us. It’s that quality that defines us as individuals, and we revel in the view that there is no other quite like us. At the root of such methods are the dynamics of life, the things that influence our decision making, those we consider on our way to finding a solution. But when specifically tasked with a problem to solve, we usually turn to sequential logic or thinking. This method is a step-by-step linear thinking over time, while the holistic approach, where all knowledge is interconnected in space, is called spatial or visual thinking.
The sequential system relies heavily on what has happened before, and involves analysis, progression from simple to complex, organization of information, and linear deductive reasoning. Hearing and language and an awareness of time are also influences. In contrast, spatial thinking involves synthesis, an intuitive grasp of complex systems, (often missing the steps) simultaneous processing of concepts, inductive reasoning (from the whole to the parts), use of imagination and generation of ideas by combining existing facts in new ways (creative thinking). It is influenced by “visualization and images” and an awareness of space.
The fifth “mindset” in John Naisbitt’s book, Mind Sets! suggests that we “see the future as a picture puzzle.” According to Mr. Naisbitt, to see the big picture better informs a view of the future. As it happens, it works as well for other things. Let me explain.
I was once given a puzzle (along with a number of others) to ponder while a magician tidied up after his performance. It looked simple enough and quickly brought us all to a preoccupation with finding the solution to it. It was a piece of paper with a small hole at one end. In the center of the paper’s length was a narrow strip that had been cut and lifted away from the paper, though still connected at both ends. Through it was a string, which also threaded the small hole. And at the two ends of the string were tied round balls—too large to fit through the hole.
As I considered the puzzle, I looked first at how simply it was put together, then abandoned any notion of an easy solution in favor of some arcane knot tying that would surely solve the problem. “Just how did I do this as a child?” I thought. I worked earnestly at discovering the genius that held so many in stupefying rapture—each working hard at his own “step-by-step” process of elimination. In frustration, one among us pulled hard on the string end with the balls tied to it, and discovered the solution, not a moment before tearing the strip from its mooring. Amazed at the solution, we all saw the “picture” that had eluded us before.
We have all heard the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s common enough to take its meaning easily. That is, that our narrow focus on the trees often sacrifices the larger view of the forest. In wrestling with the magician’s puzzle, we had prepped ourselves for the work of sequential thinking—eliminating one “trick” answer to the puzzle after another as though our logical minds would come upon the solution in time. It didn’t! Later, I heard most say that they knew the balls (which would not fit through the small hole) needed to be somehow relieved of the connected strip in the center of the paper. A simple tug on the balls would have pulled the strip through the hole, where the string and balls could easily slip free.
To explore, suggests Mr. Naisbitt, “we have to make connections between things that seemingly don’t fit, are obviously related, and sometimes seem to contradict common sense or formulas.” “Who has ever solved a picture puzzle by first putting the pieces in a straight line?” he adds. In this case, making connections is more intuitive than precise calculations. His point: “breakthroughs break old mindsets,” because discoveries are revealed in things that are already there. Birds fly; why not man? The atom was well known, but atomic physics was not before Einstein and others (Fraunhofer, Bohr, etc.) modeled it. Indeed, the world has always been round, but only a few could visualize it before 1492.
Whatever it is that we do, one thing is common to all. We must know something about the future to ensure the hope in continuing what we do. We must know what employees will do and will refuse to do, how customers will behave under various circumstances, how the competition will affect our own efforts in the marketplace, and not least the scalability and obsolescence of our capital equipment. Not perfectly, but with the surety of early explorers who knew that stepping out in faith would teach us more than torch us.
The pieces, merged together, seem always to form a picture that balances the “material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature.” It seems a fitting conclusion in a world preoccupied with short-term results.