Spotting the Gordian Knot

Fans of cycling’s Tour de France might recognize the name of Johann Bruyneel, the coach who helped Lance Armstrong  become the first man to win the Tour seven times in a row. Lance Armstrong is undoubtedly one of the best cyclists alive today. What can a coach offer him?

Simple. Lance can’t see the back of his own head. Johann can.

In other words, Johann provides external feedback. He is the person who can step back and see the big picture and provide Lance Armstrong with knowledgeable, expert feedback. That feedback, in turn, enables Lance to improve his cycling skills and consider strategies that he might never have imagined on his own. Johann’s not magic of course; as the 2010 Tour demonstrated, even Lance can be defeated by age and bad luck.

Nonetheless, the advantage of having that person showing you the back of your own head is invaluable. As part of a management training exercise, I provided participants with a variety of items and each person had to obtain various different items to accomplish their goals. As expected, the participants immediately started trading with one another.

Where events became interesting, though, was when they started to notice that no one had certain items, or at least would not admit to having them. The people who needed the “missing” items became convinced that other people were holding out on them. They then responded by actually holding out on other people, until eventually no one would trade with anyone else. Before long, the group became paralyzed; they were unable to accomplish the relatively simple task they had been given.

What made this scenario particularly intriguing, though, was that the group was so focused on its initial assumption about how to solve the problem that they were apparently incapable of considering alternatives. For example, the person who needed an apple could have obtained one from the cafeteria. The person who needed leaves from a tree could have walked outside and picked some off one of the many trees visible through the windows, and so on.

Stories of Alexander the Great tell of his being confronted with the Gordian knot, a knot so complex that it could not be untied. Alexander solved the problem by slicing it in two with his sword. When I pointed out to the participants in my exercise some of the alternative paths to solving their problems, their reaction was comparable to what I imagine was the reaction of those who saw Alexander slice the knot: stunned silence, followed by head slapping and cries of “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

To be fair, the inhabitants of ancient Telmissus probably didn’t do Homer Simpson dope slaps, but I suspect they had a very recognizable equivalent!

The key point, though, is that the people actually involved in the exercise were no more able to see the alternate solutions than Alexander’s contemporaries were capable of thinking of cutting through the knot. Confronted with a knotty problem, as it were, they locked into one approach to solving that problem. It took an outsider to consider something different.

In sports, locking into a strategy can be devastating. One top US saber fencer gained quite a reputation when he launched a series of attacks, and promptly got hit. So he did it again, and got hit. He lost the match because he couldn’t see the back of his own head: he couldn’t break out the mindset that the particular strategy he was using simply wasn’t working against that particular opponent. He was so sure that it would eventually start working that he refused to consider anything else.

In a business environment, this sort of blindness can be even more expensive. At one company, a belief about how client training should be conducted was costing the company business. They were losing engagements left and right. Their attempts to reverse the losses were focused on sales campaigns and aggressive marketing. Even though the company was filled with experts in the business, no one could see the real problem; instead, they were locked into an ineffective delivery strategy. It wasn’t until an outsider looked at what they were doing and informed them that the fundamental problem was that the training was ineffective that things changed. Quite simply, how they taught wasn’t working: clients felt that they were wasting their time and money and not learning anything. Once they understood what was actually going on, they were able to cut their particular Gordian knot and business picked up rapidly thereafter.

So how do you see the back of your own head? One way is to find someone who isn’t steeped in the assumptions of the organization, someone who will ask the “stupid” questions because they don’t know what to take for granted. Another method is to spend some time looking at what you are doing and brainstorm alternate methods of accomplishing each task. You do this whether or not the task is already completed or on going. The key is to view how you’re doing things as merely one suggested method instead of as holy writ. Best of all, of course, is to use both methods.

Once you have the perspective of the back of your own head, it’s amazing how easy it is to spot, and cut, that Gordian knot!

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