Posts tagged “problem solving”

The role of a story

Evocative example of stories and flow as elements of problem solving from Town of Cats, a Haruki Murakami story in the New Yorker. Note: emphasis mine.

He had been regarded as a math prodigy from early childhood, and he could solve high-school math problems by the time he was in third grade. Math was, for young Tengo, an effective means of retreat from his life with his father. In the mathematical world, he would walk down a long corridor, opening one numbered door after another. Each time a new spectacle unfolded before him, the ugly traces of the real world would simply disappear. As long as he was actively exploring that realm of infinite consistency, he was free.

While math was like a magnificent imaginary building for Tengo, literature was a vast magical forest. Math stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, but stories spread out before him, their sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In this forest there were no maps, no doorways. As Tengo got older, the forest of story began to exert an even stronger pull on his heart than the world of math. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape-as soon as he closed the book, he had to come back to the real world. But at some point he noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of math. Why was that? After much thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution, as there was in math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a problem into another form. Depending on the nature and the direction of the problem, a solution might be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. It served no immediate practical purpose, but it contained a possibility.

Check out this year’s (business) models!

At this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit., one of the buzz stories is not about an automobile model.

Radio Flyer car, San Jose, CA, 2008

Palo Alto company Better Place is creating a new approach to powering the electric car by stepping outside the traditional automobile business model.

Better Place positions the electric car battery as an element of infrastructure rather than as part the car itself. This move diffuses $8K-$9K of financial impact borne by the consumer in the traditional business model where the battery is part of the upfront cost of the car.

It’s a great example of tackling a tough problem–maybe in this case, “”how can we build a better battery”–by reframing it and creating an even better problem statement: “How can we make electric cars accessible to and functional for more people.”

Related Posts:
Shah Agassi’s Better Place
Rage With The Machine


A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann


Poet Kenneth Goldsmith calls himself an “uncreative writer,” and his works include: everything he said for a week; every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period; a year of transcribed weather reports, and the September 10, 2001 issue of The New York Times, transcribed.

My first reaction to Goldsmith’s work was that it seemed like a good piece of conceptual art scamming, but then I heard him read one of his transcribed weather reports on the radio.

Before he read the piece, Goldsmith explained that the process of transcribing these artifacts creates an experience for him of the poetry in everyday language use. And it was true-as Goldsmith read the weather report, in a fairly rapid, uncadenced style, I was struck by how vividly evocative the place names, the verbs of wind and temperature, the homey advice to “stay indoors” all were.

I think what Goldsmith is doing is a word-focused parallel to what we do in contextual research practice: we carefully observe and document the everyday, as much as possible suspending our own preconceptions of what is and is not significant, in order to see in new ways.

When I was younger, I effortlessly seemed to think in a more lyrical and poetic way than I do now. My hypothesis has been that this change is a result of being more involved with “putting my hands on things” than I was in my 20s. My creative energy now goes much more towards describing and solving problems-juxtaposing complex alternatives, articulating ideas that have the potential for real impact-and there’s just not the same kind of energy available for playing with language.

I’m happy with the direction my way of thinking has evolved, but at the same time, I feel a certain sense of loss for that earlier version of myself, and the ease with which I used to make words do tricks.

Hearing Goldsmith reminded me that I needn’t draw a hard line between between playing with language and solving problems, between the lyrical and the practical-that it’s all out there, evocative and full of potential.

The Box That Is Not A Box (But Is Still A Box)

Chip and Dan Heath write in Fast Company about the power of constraints

Keith Sawyer, author of the insightful book Group Genius, spent years studying the work of jazz groups and improvisational theater ensembles. He found that structure doesn’t hamper creativity; it enables it. When improv comedians take the stage, they need a concrete stimulus: “What if Romeo had been gay?” The stimulus can’t be: “Go on, make me laugh, funnyman.”

“Improv actors are taught to be specific,” Sawyer says. “Rather than say, ‘Look out, it’s a gun!’ you should say, ‘Look out, it’s the new ZX-23 laser kill device!’ Instead of asking, ‘What’s your problem?’ say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'” The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff.

This is something I’ve emphasized in my talks on improv and ethnography (which always end up being a workshop on improv/ ethnography/ design/ creativity)…the energy that comes from working on problems that are extremely constrained along some axes (i.e., each successive utterance must begin with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through Z) and utterly open along other axes (i.e., what the actors say can or be anything they want).

Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away

Last weekend I went to an audition for a newly forming troupe from Blue Blanket Improv. I had done a full two hours of improv games for a really long time, and I was definitely rusty, but it was a lot of fun. I was hesitant to attend because there’s a pretty strong focus to the group – non-profit community events, and performances. I’m not sure I care that much about either. With that emphasis on performances comes a need to be funny for an audience. When I interviewed Chris Miller about improv and creativity, he noted the difference between improv and improv comedy, and this is definitely about improv comedy. But Chris also encouraged me to go to the audition, simply for a chance to play. I’m glad I did, because it was absolutely a chance to play, but it also clarified something for me: that I am fascinated by the problem-solving aspect of improv games…the need to follow the constraints of the game (i.e., a one-minute scene that is improvised, then repeated in 30-second, 15-second, 7.5-second and 3 second versions), be collaborative, and be creative. I love the laughter that comes from the participants in the activity (and even if you aren’t in the scene, you are going to get up and do it yourself next, so you share in that creative act) but I’m not so turned on by improv as a form of entertainment for those on the other side of the proscenium.

I got the call last night telling me that I passed the audition and was invited to join the troupe. I had to decline; I love the process and the way they’ve set up a structure for trust and creativity and collaboration, but I can’t go down the road of committing to performing for others right now.

It was sort of a stunning decision to make; I can imagine at various points in my life I would have given anything to be part of something like this, especially at this nascent stage (essentially they are building a new troupe from scratch in our community).

The day before that call I had seen a posting up at CCA for writing classes at
Killing My Lobster

This class is a six-week boot camp where the main requirement is for you to write funny and keep writing funny. If you’ve always had a curiousity [sic] for comedy writing, had funny ideas and have wondered “what would happen if I actually took this to the next level,” and enjoy learning and creating in a fun environment this may be the class for you. The class will culminate in a live reading of your favorite material.

I really enjoy sketch comedy as an audience and this class (sadly already in progress) sounds really cool. It’s another set of creative problem solving tools with some very different constraints and philosophies than improv, but perhaps a valuable exploration in expanding storytelling skills.

And finally, a piece about laughter and social context in the NYT today.

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall. “When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Mr. Stillman says he got so used to the laughs that he wasn’t quite prepared for the response at a conference in January, although he realizes he should have expected it.

“It was a small conference attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” he recalls. “When they heard me, a lowly graduate student, tell the muffin joke, there was a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets.”


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