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Many Paths

{Translator’s Note}: Exciting news: more (mythological) archaeological evidence is being unearthed as I write this about the mythical Veritas tribes. My next series of translations will be put on hold however, until we have a chance to arrange and understand this new evidence so that I may use it to help guide the translations. In the meantime, I’ve asked one of my psychologist friends (Dr. John C. Thomas) to take over the blog for awhile and write short posts on such topics as thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Dr. Thomas has been studying these topics for fifty years. He was also trained as a Fellow in Rational Emotive Therapy. He has over 300 publications and presentations on psychology, AI, human-computer interaction, and user experience. 


Hi, folks. I imagine many of you, like me, can hardly wait to see what these new findings will be regarding the Veritas tribe. Meanwhile, I’ve been asked to fill in by helping us think about thinking. One of the main characters we’ve been following in the myths of the Veritas is “She-of-Many-Paths.” She personifies the first thinking skill I’d like to discuss. 

This skill goes by many names including “Alternatives Thinking,” and “Divergent Thinking.” It is also discussed in the Pattern: “The Iroquois Rule of Six.” The basic idea is simple. When we are confronted with a situation, we often “Jump to Conclusions” or “Spring into Action” before we have all the facts. Even when we have all the facts (which is rare), we also have a tendency to focus on our first interpretation. This often leads to thinking of one (and only one) course of action. And, very occasionally; for instance, in some emergencies, that is the correct thing to do.

backlit breathing apparatus danger dangerous

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Even in emergencies however, our first terrified instinct about what to do can be dead wrong. For example, people see a small fire in their homes and immediately throw water on it. But if it’s a grease fire or an electrical fire, this is not a good course of action. Soon after I first began my dozen years as Executive Director of the NYNEX AI Lab, there was a fire in a nearby Stouffer’s Hotel. The charred bodies of a dozen IBM executives were found huddled in a closet. In the smoke and panic and confusion of the fire, they had apparently grabbed at the first door and gone into a dead end closet and perished there. 

In daily life, there are a great many situations where a little extra thinking time would improve the outcome. For example, while working at IBM Research in the 1970’s, I drove about 10 minutes each way to work. At one point, I had a loose fan belt and my battery went dead. In a hurry to attend a meeting, I jump-started my car and drove to the IBM parking lot. Already late to a meeting, I went to turn off the car and just before I did so, I realized that I had not driven far enough to recharge the battery. So, I decided I’d better leave the car engine running for awhile. But as I gathered up my things and began dashing off to the meeting, I realized that it was insane to leave my car unlocked with the engine running! After all, someone could simply open the door and drive off! So, still in a hurry, I locked the car — with the engine running and the keys safely locked inside. 

blue sedan

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Most of us have done similar things. In some early experiments on design problem solving done at IBM, I found that when I asked people to come up with as many solutions as possible, they would generate ideas fairly quickly until they came up with one that they thought would really solve the problem. At that point, their idea productivity fell precipitously. It is hard for us to force ourselves to think of more than one good solution. 

Why is this important? For one thing, conditions change. Something may happen that makes your first solution no longer apt. For another thing, there may be side-effects of your solution that make it unacceptable. Another class of problems is that someone may object to your first solution for reasons you could not foresee. (See also, “Who Speaks for Wolf” as a way to help minimize that chance). In the context of invention and product development it is extremely unlikely that the first solution you come upon (and indeed even the first few solutions you think of) are novel. They are instead extremely likely to be the intellectual property of someone else. The most obvious solutions have likely already been patented and may already be in products or services that many customers are already using. 


I have long been interested in observing people’s strategies and tactics in sporting events (See “The Winning Weekend Warrior”). One tactic that is overwhelmingly popular in tennis, for instance, is that the harder your opponent hits the ball, the harder you try to hit the ball. For example, someone hits a very hard ball while you’re at the net. You take this as an affront and think “I’ll show you!” Trying to hit the volley even harder means you take the racquet back farther. About half the time, the extra time it takes to bring the racquet back means you’ll mis-hit the ball or miss it entirely. On most of the remaining occasions, you’ll hit the volley too hard and it will go long. If someone hits the ball at you hard, what you need to do is simply block it back and guide it to the right spot. Trying to add extra power is unnecessary and too time-consuming. What is remarkable is not that you and I try to hit a hard ball harder. What is remarkable is that we never seem to try a different tactic!  

There are many issues with focusing all your energy on the first solution you come up with. But the worst consequence is that you are overly invested in that first “solution” (which may not even be a real solution). This is bad in trying to solve problems in every domain I can think of and having others involved amplifies the badness. 

For instance, let’s say that after 3 years without a vacation, you and your spouse finally have time for a nice two-week vacation. You want to visit Cuba for two weeks and they want to visit Vietnam for two weeks. If you each only come up with one idea, you will almost always find yourself pitching for your idea, trying to convince the other person that Cuba is better while they will spend their energy trying to shoot down your choice and explain (patiently at first and less so as time goes on) why Vietnam is a much better idea. After many frustrating arguments that go nowhere, you may decide to compromise; e.g., you could visit an empty stretch of open sea in the Pacific Ocean half-way between the locations; or, you may decide to flip a coin. All this frustration and bad feeling might be avoidable. It could turn out that your second choice and your spouse’s second choice are both San Diego! But you’ll never even discover this because when each of you only thinks of one idea, what should be a collaborative problem solving exercise instead becomes a debate – a contest with precisely one winner and one loser. 

man and woman wearing brown leather jackets

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Thinking of many alternatives will save you many headaches – at work, in your love life, in your recreational endeavors. When you force yourself to think of many alternatives, you will also be more open to the ideas of others. Over time, thinking of many alternatives whenever you get a chance will also increase your own creative potential. Who knows? You might even be chosen as the next leader. 

For a leader, it is particularly important to consider many possibilities. Insisting that everyone get on board with the first idea that pops into your head will cause resentment and dissension. It will also make you far less willing to change to a different idea when circumstances necessitate it. 

You may start a business and decide that you must be personally involved in every decision and with every customer contact. At first, when your company is small, this might work out wonderfully well. No-one knows the customer and the product quite so well as you do. But you are not God. You cannot be everywhere and know everything. If you never learn to delegate; never grow the capacity of your people; never take expert advice — you will drive yourself and everyone around you crazy. The very success of your business will guarantee its ultimate failure. Learn to consider many paths. You will be glad you did. 


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