The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) solved easily by loophole or “thinking outside the box” (“cutting the Gordian knot”).
The iconic Gordian knot is analogous to the seemingly intractable problems of converting an amorphous idea into a working prototype and then into a functional, marketable product (aka “inventing”).
If inventing were simple, everyone with an idea would create a new invention. But inventing is a Gordian knot that is solved, not by cutting it with a sword, but instead, by thinking “outside the box” – asking the right questions, devising simple solutions.
Using Creativity to Solve Problems
A large crowd surrounded an embarrassed truck driver who had driven his too-tall 18-wheeler into a freeway bridge. Some suggested sledge hammering the roof of the truck to free it. Others recommended jack hammering the concrete to free the truck.
A 7 year old child suggested letting some air out of the tires allowing the truck to be backed out from under the bridge. The child's solution was simple and inexpensive; and, within 5 minutes the truck was free from the bridge.
The adults focused on the wrong problem:
- the bridge was too low
The child solved the right problem:
- the truck was too tall
Inventors who creatively develop their products, get bogged down with marketing, packaging, financing and other business problems, because; much like the adults in the above allegory – they focus on the wrong problem(s).
New inventors ask me, “where can I find a good prototyper?” Upon further discussion, I typically find they never asked themselves:
- How can I make a simple prototype?
- Can someone in a local community college or university help me – at a low cost?
For my slim wallet product, I first made crude proof-of-concept cardboard prototypes, later I sewed some leather wallet prototypes. Only when I needed professional-looking wallets to present for licensing did I seek outside assistance: a former Jo Ann's Fabrics employee who did custom tailoring. She made me three attractive leather wallets for less than $200 (my budget).
Matt, an inventor friend, wished to survey young people about his new product. He could have paid $3,000 – $5,000 to a professional company to develop a sophisticated survey, then compile a statistically valid sample, and then administer and compile survey results and statistics. He needed to find a solution that would cost less than $100.
So, he designed his own survey with a few key questions. He printed up 100 survey sheets and selected a nearby university for his reasonably valid sample (college students). He realized that the university administrators would never grant him permission to conduct his survey on university property. Instead, he showed up on campus one school-day morning, demonstrated his product, and surveyed dozens of students – all within a couple of hours.
Matt thought creatively and asked himself the right questions:
- Can I create my own survey? – Yes
- Where can I find a good sample group? – at a local university
- Can I secure permission from the university to survey students? – no, won't happen
- If I just show up and survey students myself, will I get in trouble? – very unlikely
For the cost of his time and 100 copies of his survey, he quickly gathered information worth thousands of dollars. By the way, he didn't get in any trouble from the university.
Do it Yourself, Ask the Right Questions, Seek Simple Solutions
You too can save thousands of dollars and cut the Gordian knot of inventing challenges:
- Do it yourself – unless it is impossible or unwise to do so
- Ask the right questions – to solve the real problems
- Seek simple solutions – complex solutions rarely yield good results