How good are you at problem solving?

How good are you at problem solving?

Critical thinking, strategic thinking, creative problem solving, decision making - you probably have them all in your feed and hopefully on your agenda, cause they are all skills needed for the future of your jobs. I intentionally used the plural of the word job because starting with Harari’s Sapiens up to Epstein’s Range, I hear this music in my years: be ready for multiple job types within your career, be ready to reskill at any time, be flexible, my friend. Gone are and will be the times when one well specialized job will take you from college to retirement.

If you want to check one of these skills - particularly the problem solving ability - I have an exercise for you, found out in Range, How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized Word (Chapter 5: Thinking Outside Experience)

Introduced by Karl Duncker in 1945, the exercise goes like this:

“Suppose you are a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant stomach tumor. It is impossible to operate on this patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed the patient will die. There is a kind of ray that can be used to destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumor either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?

It’s on you to excise the tumor and save the patient, but the rays are either too powerful or too weak. How can you solve this? While you’re thinking, a little story to pass the time:

1. There once was a general who needed to capture a fortress in the middle of a country from a brutal dictator. If the general could get all of his troops to the fortress at the same time, they would have no problem taking it. Plenty of roads that the troops could travel radiated out from the fort like wheel spokes, but they were strewn with mines, so only small groups of soldiers could safely traverse any one road. The general came up with a plan. He divided the army into small groups, and each group travelled a different road leading to the fortress. They synchronized their watches, and made sure to converge on the fortress at the same time via their separate roads. The plan worked. The general captured the fortress and overthrew the dictator. Have you saved the patient yet?

Just one last story while you’re still thinking:

2. Years ago, a small-town fire chied arrived at a woodshed fire, concerned that it would spread to a nearby house if it was not extinguished quickly. There was no hydrant nearby, but the shed was next to a lake, so there was plenty of water. Dozens of neighbors were already taking turns with buckets throwing water on the shed, but they weren’t making any progress. The neighbors were surprised when the fire chief yelled at them to stop, and to all go fill their buckets in the lake. When they returned, the chief arranged them in a circle around the shed, and on the count of three had them all throw their water at once. The fire was immediately dampened, and soon thereafter extinguished. The town gave the fire chief a pay raise as a reward for quick thinking.

Are you done saving your patient? 

Only about 10% of people solve “Duncker’s radiation problem” initially. Presented with both the radiation problem and the fortress story, about 30% solve it and save the patient. Given both of those plus the fire chief story, 50% solve it. Given the fortress and the fire chief stories and then told to use them to help solve the radiation problem, 80% save the patient.

The answer is that you (the doctor) could direct multiple low-intensity rays at the tumor from different directions, leaving healthy tissue intact, but converging at the tumor site with enough collective intensity to destroy it. Just like how the general divided up troops and directed them to converge at the fortress, and how the fire chief arranged neighbors with their buckets around the burning shed so that their water would converge on the fire simultaneously. Those results are from a series of 1980s analogical thinking studies”.


So, how good are you into problem solving (apart from the nice power point presentations?:)

Credit photo: Cristi Popa. Amazing cake: Lolita Boutique de dulciuri

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