Thursday, September 9, 2004

Puzzles and Paradigms

The jigsaw puzzle lay on the dark wooden card table partially completed. Previous puzzle solvers had established the borders. Some of the interior portions had been completed. But, by and large, the puzzle was incomplete. I stared at the puzzle intrigued by two aspects. I was bemused by the fact that an unfinished puzzle existed to be worked on by a passerby. And, I wanted to try to solve it. It was a challenge.

The table on which the puzzle lay sat in one of the five rooms that constitute the lobby of the Cloister, a hotel on the seacoast of Georgia on Sea Island. Each of the five rooms has its own distinct character.

The jigsaw puzzle is a feature of this hotel. I sat down to work awhile on the puzzle. It was very difficult. The picture represented by the puzzle was a Monet, "The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil," an impressionistic painting. There was little distinction between colors in adjacent areas of the painting. In addition, the puzzle parts seemed to be all the same shape. They were not. But, the shapes were similar. Above and to the left lay a completed puzzle finished by previous guests. I thought as I looked at the completed puzzle, "How easy they had it!" It was a Currier and Ives type of painting, very bold colors, distinct boundaries, and sharply defined pieces.

Kuhn first used paradigms in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to describe how science and technology advances. Operating within a paradigm, scientists, technologists and engineers use a pattern of rules, theories, and beliefs to solve problems. Problem solving within the paradigm becomes puzzle solving, the application of known rules to a problem whose solution is assumed to exist. Motivation for progress of this type is derived from the clever, logical application of the rules.

As in the example of the jigsaw puzzle, a solution is assumed to exist. The parts scattered on the table are assumed to belong to the puzzle. If you cannot find the place for individual puzzle part, you set it aside, saying to yourself, "I will find the place for this later."

The case is similar for technological progress. Pieces of the puzzle that don't fit are set aside awaiting clearer understanding or improved capability through better equipment.

If however, there were two or more jigsaw puzzles mixed together, at some point it will become obvious that all the pieces do not fit into the puzzle being worked out. At this point in technological progress, when anomalies have accumulated, a crisis occurs. It becomes clear that the paradigm in use cannot be used to solve all the problems. If other people have been working on the same puzzle, a clear solution exists and a revolution occurs. The paradigm has been changed.

Revolution is a very creative act. Problem solving is not particularly creative. But recognition that two or more puzzles are involved requires a leap of insight. Puzzle solving is a left brain activity. A revolution, a paradigm change, is a right brain activity.

Failure, a destructive anomaly, can bring progress. The Franklin (Sir John Franklin, 1845) expedition to find a Northwest Passage was the largest single disaster in the annals of arctic exploration with the loss of 128 men. Yet because Franklin was a national hero and because of his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, his failure resulted in progress.

Jane Franklin, an interesting public figure her own right, was rich, beautiful, impressively articulate and assertive. She was a mountain climber who ran wild rivers and penetrated strange cultures and courts. She was the force behind a 10-year search to find her husband. Thirty expeditions were sent to find clues. The last, financed by Lady Jane herself, proved to be successful. She sent them to where she thought her husband would have gone.

In the process of the search for Sir Franklin, both the southern and northern transarctic passages were found. In addition, the British developed technologies adapted to Arctic explorations. It was 60 years later, however, before Roald Amnudsen took a ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Failure can lead to success. We forget that all too often in business. We don't learn from our mistakes. It is culturally improper to diagnose failures. Even worse, our failures are buried in unmarked graves. We need to tolerate our failures. A failure may point to a flaw in our Paradigm. It can be more valuable in the long run than a success.

There is a paradox in all of this. Progress cannot be made without a paradigm. Bacon understood this 300 years ago when he wrote, "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion." Without a set of rules to measure progress, you don't know if you've made progress. Like a river, the banks define the river and allow it to flow. But the banks prohibit the river's course. The more comprehensive the paradigm, the better a measure of activities, yet the more difficult it is to change. The better the paradigm, the better it is at problem solving and the harder to change.

The puzzle was still there the next day. A few more pieces had been put into place. The completed puzzle still glared at any potential problem-solver, the example that proved that puzzles could be solved, that the reward for completion is a beautiful painting. I placed a few more pieces in place.

How like technological progress, or for that matter, any human progress! Our role as we pass by is to put in place the few pieces of the puzzle we can and leave. Progress depends upon many people placing pieces in place until the puzzle is solved or anomalies uncovered and a flash of insight brings a step change in progress.

Paul Schumann

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