December 12, 2010

Reframe your thinking


If you can’t identify the right key question or the right solution to your problem, maybe you need to re-consider how you’re looking at it.

A couple of days ago I quoted William Ury’s Ted Talk in a post on the importance of telling a story. He had another interesting bit; I’ll paraphrase.

A farmer dies leaving his 17 camels to be split between his 3 sons. He wants the eldest to have half the camels, the second son to have a third, and the youngest to have a ninth.

But 17 isn’t dividable in whole numbers by 2, 3 or 9, so the sons are lost.

Therefore they seek help from a poor wise man who says that he doesn’t know the answer but that, if it can be of any help, he can give them his camel. That camel is old and none of the sons wants it, but they agree nonetheless.

And now they have 18 camels; the eldest can have his 9, the second son his 6, the youngest his 2 and since 9+6+2 only sums to 17, the wise man can have his old camel back.

Problem solved!

There are a couple of things we can learn from this story:

Reframe your problem. If you can’t find a solution with how you originally framed your problem, you need to step back and consider it from a different angle. By being stuck with looking at the problem only from one direction (how to divide 17 in whole numbers), we might not see that a solution exists.

Get an old wise man. Stepping back from a situation is hard work, especially if you’ve been at it for a long time or if you are emotionally connected. Get external help. Also, get “dumb help”, i.e. people that are not so-called experts in your field: they will bring a fresh look that is useful in acquiring a new perspective.

Use a catalyst. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that initiates or accelerates a reaction without itself being affected. Getting an old camel that no-one wants can’t possibly solve our deadlock up until it actually does… and the camel goes back to his owner.

See more: See William Ury’s Ted Talk.