‘Le Petit Prince’, and Why Imagination is Essential To Problem Solving

I’m currently reading ‘The Little Prince’ (‘Le Petit Prince’ in French), by Antoine De Saint Exupery. The narrator starts by telling a story from his childhood when he was 6 years old. He talks about a time when he drew the following picture:

and asked the ‘grown ups’ if his drawing scared them. They answered, ‘Why be scared of a hat?’ He then tells the reader that his drawing was not a picture of a hat.

‘It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Then I drew the inside of the boa constrictor, so the grown-ups could understand. They always need explanations. My drawing Number Two looked like this:

The grow-ups advised me to put away my drawings of boa constrictors, outside or inside, and apply myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar.’

The ‘grown-ups’ failed to see the boa constrictor- they only saw the hat. They failed to realize that a simple seemingly hat-shaped brown structure could represent a zillion different things. There are multiple ways to see the same problem, or, in this case, the same drawing. Yet all they could see was the hat. And when they were shown a more explicit drawing, they dismissed it, perhaps thinking it was ridiculous. But no, it’s not that ridiculous. What’s ridiculous is when you don’t use your imagination.

Today, in trying to solve the world’s most pressing and challenging problems, we need to be able to see things in different ways. To go beyond what is obvious and visible. To imagine all the possibilities. Not just to come up with innovative solutions but more importantly, to first be able to correctly identify the problem, and be able to look at it in different ways. In trying to come up with new ideas to solve a problem or design a new feature for a product, a lot of people engage in ‘brainstorming sessions’, where you typically sit in groups, perhaps with a whiteboard, and try to come up with as many solutions as possible for solving the problem, which is great for generating new ideas. But I think before that, it’s important to spend time with the problem. As Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Now, imagine you’re a landlord of an office building in New York in the 1930s. And the employees in the office complain to you that the elevators are slow in the building, and threaten to leave if nothing is done about it. Now this is a serious problem, you could end up losing your tenants if you don’t fix it. You’ll probably call your team of engineers and get them to come up with possible solutions to make elevators faster. But that’s not what this one particular landlord did when faced with the same problem.

You might think that the problem is that the elevators are slow, and the landlord should get better machines and make them faster. But is that really the problem? Or rather, is that the only way of looking at the problem?
Here are some other possible perspectives:

a)The tenants are not good because they complain a lot, so they should be fired.

b)The threat of leaving is the problem- if the landlord offers the tenants something else in return for not complaining/threatening to leave, it may solve the landlord’s problem

c)Or…The tenants don’t like to wait for the elevators. It’s the waiting, and the boredom that comes with having nothing to do while waiting, that’s the problem.
This is exactly how the landlord saw the problem. So he decided to install mirrors in the elevator waiting areas, to give people something to engage themselves with (admiring themselves in the mirror), whilst they waited for the elevators. And it actually worked. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped. Today, if you’ve noticed, it’s fairly commonplace to have mirrors outside elevators. And that, is how this practice started.

Again, what looks like a hat may not be a hat, it may be a boa constrictor digesting an elephant! If we have a hammer, we tend to see everything as a nail, but it may not be a nail, it may be a hole in the wall, or a leak in the pipe, or any one of a hundred and forty six other things. We need to open our minds to see things differently. To go beyond the obvious. To use our creativity to think of different approaches and perspectives to the problem at hand. Had the landlord tried to make elevators faster, he would have ended up spending much more money and resources, but all he did was install mirrors and the problem was solved.

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I write: about my life, of the little I know about the world, of what life teaches me.

I write: about my life, of the little I know about the world, of what life teaches me.