The Gordian knot — how you frame a problem influences the solution

Back in the last millennium, when I was a contract programmer, my customer asked me how long it would take to write a custom program he outlined for me. As I was getting ready to estimate the number of man-months and dollars, I remembered my Greek mythology and asked him what he intended to do with the program once I finished it. After he described the underlying problem, I told him I’d have his solution just as soon as I could drive over to CompUSA and purchase a readymade solution for $250. (A fraction of what a custom solution would have cost.)

The father of the gods had ordained that when it came time for the people to select a king, they must choose the first person to ride up to the temple of Zeus in a wagon. Gordius innocently fulfilled the oracle’s prophecy and was made king.

One of Gordius’ first acts was to dedicate his wagon to Zeus and to place it near the temple, the yoke tied to the pole by an intricate knot of cornel bark. The knot was a complex Turkish knot, having no ends exposed. Hundreds of tightly interwoven thongs of cornel-bark made the knot an impressive centerpiece for the shrine. There it remained as an important symbol for the Phrygians.

Month after month the bark hardened, people speculated as to its purpose, and eventually, an oracle foretold that whoever loosed the Gordian Knot would lord over the whole of Asia. The lore grew and grew.

Would-be rulers would make a pilgrimage to the temple to untie the knot. All failed until Alexander the Great. Big Al walked up to the yoke, took his sword and with one mighty stroke, cut the knot away, revealing the yoke underneath.

Why did so many smart and ambitious men fail? In part it was because the way the challenge was framed in their minds. Most were asking themselves how can I untie the knot. Alexander reframed the question as how can I reveal the yoke?

When I was in charge of product development I had a sign on my desk that read “Bring me problems, not solutions.” I’ve found that most people don’t come to you with a problem to solve. They come to you for help in implementing their approach to solving the underlying problem. Always drill down to what the underlying problem is. You have a greater chance of coming up with a solution that optimizes your products and skills if you can correctly identify the underlying problem and then define the implementation approach.

A Gordian knot approach is one that cuts to the core of the underlying problem. Employees can learn to become better problem solvers. (It was formal Wilson Learning sales training that opened my eyes. The training led me to shift my focus to identifying and solving the underlying problem.) Good coaching should be part of a your performance review process.

I’ve outlined a process for a better way to structure the job description and performance review process in an article published in the Business Strategy Series (Turning the Tables on Performance Reviews: How to Create a Better Process That Empowers, Energizes and Rewards Your Employees). Take a look, and contact me if you’d like to learn how to apply this process in your own organization.

Posted in HR Management | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *