Emergent and Non-emergent Solutions and Learning
In a thoughtful comment on my last post, Anshuman pointed out that the “catalogue of available heuristics increases as one gains more experience”, and is an essential component of developing mastery. I am thinking about this as I warily face off my Taekwondo sparring partner, whom I am supposed to throw on the ground and twist his arm behind his back.
Now, my sparring partner is taller, with a ponytail of dirty blond hair and bulging, tattooed biceps, and easily weighs 1.5 times my weight. He drives a Thunderbird that he has restored himself (well, you get the picture). Those of you who know me will vouch that my strengths tend to be mental rather than physical!
I’ve been at this for 30 minutes now, and the best I’ve been able to do is move him a few inches, while I’ve gone down a dozen times. If I gained more experience, maybe exercised for a few months, I might be able to get him off his feet.
The instructor finally stops by and demonstrates the technique; an underarm hold, a twist and a pull. On my first try, my sparring partner goes down. In 30 minutes of practice, I can reliably floor him in seconds.
Now, back to business.
Back at my desk, I can’t help but draw a parallel between the sparring session and the big, hirsute, tattooed problems that we deal with in our programs that seem intractable. I tend to rely on getting together the smart members of the program to solve problems, but that assumes that the solution to all my program’s problems are emergent – that with sufficient thought and effort, a solution will emerge from the same group that is dealing with the problem.
Getting expert help is the last resort, because it doesn’t seem possible to determine a priori which problems have emergent solutions, and which do not; also, that every complex problem initially seems intractable. Added to this is the transaction cost of identifying the right experts, as well as the Not Invented Here resistance to solution adoption I see on many programs. We wait for too long and spend more time to find a solution to a problem that can be resolved in short simply by getting an expert to help with the expertise, tools and techniques needed.
How do we identify the optimum point where we decide that a solution is not emergent, and go outside for help? Your thoughts are most welcome.
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