Princess Bride Problem Solving

Once upon a time there was an organization. It was a fairly good sized business, not too big and not too small. It was a business, in fact, much like your business. And it came up with a way to apply the battle of wits from the Princess Bride to dealing with some long-lasting and thorny problems. For those who may not recall this scene or, hard though it may be to imagine, have never seen the movie, it occurs relatively early in the film. Vizinni the dwarf has kidnapped Princess Buttercup and is fleeing with her to Guilder. In pursuit is the mysterious Man in Black. The Man in Black defeats the master swordsman, in a duel, and Fezzik the Giant in a wrestling match. He then confronts Vizinni in a battle of wits: two goblets, one supposedly containing deadly Iocane powder, sit before the two men. Vizinni must deduce which goblet contains the poison and then both men will drink.

What follows is a dizzying, and often hilarious, chain of logic as Vizinni attemps to solve the puzzle.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man In Black: You’ve made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely. Because Iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Man In Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait till I get going! Where was I?


Now, the fact is, none of the problems the business was facing were particularly unique or new problems. They were problems that the organization had had for many years: difficulties in setting priorities and making decisions; allocating resources and providing clear direction to employees. In other words, the sorts of problems that many businesses struggle with.

These problems were the topic of much discussion, but despite all that discussion nothing ever changed. Attempts to solve the problems almost resembled the classic model of two steps forward, one step back. The resemblance broke down in the second half: they usually took two steps back.

Eventually, someone suggested bringing in a consultant to help with the problems. This is where things got creative. It turns out that there are two types of consultants, at least for this particular business: those who were closely connected to the business and known to people there, and those who had no connection at all.

We now come to Vizinni and his Dizzying Intellect.

Consultants in the second group could clearly not be hired because they knew nothing about the company. How could they possibly be of assistance? Therefore we must look at consultants in the first group.

Consultants in the first group were too close to the organization. Clearly they too could not be hired. Therefore, we must go back to consultants in the second group.

But consultants in the second group would clearly not care about the results. So they could not be hired. Back to the first group.

But consultants in the first group could not be hired because they might care too much. So they too could not be hired.

And so it went, on and on, until eventually nothing was done. People continued to complain about the problems, but no one wanted to act.

In the movie, of course, Vizzini finally chooses a goblet and drinks the deadly Iocane powder. In reality, it didn’t matter which goblet he chose as the Man in Black had developed an immunity to Iocane powder and poisoned both goblets.

Similarly, in this case it wouldn’t have mattered which choice the business actually made: bring in someone totally unconnected or someone close and known to the people there. The important thing was to make a choice and actually take action to deal with the long-term problems that were interfering with their productivity. Whichever choice they made would have different benefits and different drawbacks, but either could have helped them. It’s only the choice to do nothing that has no hope of success. Let’s face it, if the problems haven’t gone away on their own after months or years, odds are pretty good that they won’t be going away on their own tomorrow or even next year.

Choose a goblet. Take action. Nothing will change until you do.

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