How A Parlor Puzzle Changed The Way I Think About Problem Solving

Posted by Chris Fowler on Oct 28, 2016 10:18:53 AM

In Lessons Learned, Problem Solving


Solving problems (and puzzles!) can sometimes be a difficult task. They’re challenging and often come with any number of stated considerations to take into account. Things you can or must do in searching for a solution — and also as often, things you can’t do.


Some of those requirements, as we’ll call them, are explicit. They’re made clear. But others are implied. As you may have guessed from the title, a recent puzzle I came across helped me better understand my own approach to problem solving and developing solutions.


Humor me for a moment: pull out a pen and draw the following on a piece of paper. 


Your challenge? Draw four (4) straight lines on the paper that connects all nine (9) dots.


You have two requirements:
  1. You can pass through each dot only once; and
  2. Your pen cannot leave the paper.  


Go for it. I’ll wait here until you’re done.






That was tougher than you anticipated, wasn’t it? Maybe even slightly frustrating. Well, what happened? Why weren’t you able to figure it out?


My guess is that at some point you assumed that you were not able to draw lines outside of the larger square, a form that your brain immediately created as it stared at the nine points.


Did your brain do something like….this?


If you attempt to solve the puzzle with the assumption that it is a group of points making up a square, as I illustrated above, you will never solve the puzzle.


You were working and trying to find a solution with a self-imposed, false paradigm. There was no square. No requirement that limited the length of your lines.  


What if you hadn’t assumed that false paradigm? (1).gif


By nature, people look at a problem or an opportunity and immediately begin the process of developing solutions based on both requirements that are provided and our own assumptions.


And it’s that subconscious action of imposing a set of rules or observations of our own that is often the most limiting. Rules that we don’t even recognize we are creating. We create these rules and then we let them influence the way we go about tackling a problem or an opportunity.


So I encourage you to challenge your own assumptions.


The next time you are trying to solve a problem and hit a wall, stop and unpack what assumptions you have made. And what false paradigms you may have created. Doing so could unlock a simple and brilliant solution that was right in front of you all along. If you had only let yourself see it.