Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Needles, Haystacks, and Theories of Relativity

Comedian David Brenner hit the late night talk shows in the 1970s with a bit that included the line, “Of course you always find things in the last place you look; who would find something and then keep looking for it?”

The answer, interestingly enough, is Albert Einstein. Turns out our national treasure, developer of not one, but two theories on relativity, and one-time Patent Clerk often kept looking for things he had already found. Maybe that’s why he gave us a second theory.

Stay with me for just a sec... Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity deals with space and time, but didn’t explain the effects of gravity - thus the need for a second theory.

Asked about his approach to problem solving he once remarked that most people, when looking for a needle in a haystack, stop looking once they found one. He however, was compelled to keep looking until he had found every possible needle.

More to the point, even though he revolutionized our thinking about the universe, he recognized that his first theory wasn’t sufficient, i.e. the first step in solving a problem is in recognizing that you have one.

When you are trying to solve a problem, maybe how to get access to some necessary data that resides outside of a system you own - do you stop thinking about the problem once you have found a solution? Or like Al, do you keep examining the haystack, until you have considered every possible solution?

Henry Louis Mencken was quoted as saying there is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.

Can you evaluate your own solutions with emotional detachment and identify shortcomings? If so, that is step #1 - i.e. recognizing when you have a (continuing) problem. The next step is to continue looking for needles / solutions in your haystack / problem domain.

Of course, you need to know when to move on, so somewhere between David Brenner (stop searching after the first ‘solution’) and Albert Einstein (exhaust every conceivable possibility) we should find happiness as corporate vanguards of progress.

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