Mr. Reuben Goldberg, Calvin’s Dad and the Bubble

Posted by Connie French on Apr 1, 2010 5:00:10 PM

by Steven Telio, Director of Product Management, InnoCentive

In the end, I took a different job.

I’ll also admit that my thinking has evolved since the interview, and I don’t necessarily believe that the RGM metaphor holds together completely, but for the sake of argument…

The interviewer asked, “Who are your role models?”

“Rube Goldberg,” I replied.

The interviewer looked confused. I was interviewing for a position with a consultancy that specialized in solving difficult business problems. She didn’t think I was taking her question seriously. But I was.

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist and inventor who won a Pulitzer prize in 1948 for his political cartoons. He is best known for a series of cartoons depicting complex machines designed to do simple tasks, a so-called Rube Goldberg Machine, or RGM. The machines are often whimsical, overly complicated and completely contrived, yet they successfully perform the tasks they are designed to do. Some of my favorite real-world examples are OK Go’s latest contraption, and the Honda car commercial “The Cog”.

A well-conceived RGM is a singular example of the art of engineering and science. There is beauty in these machines. More important to me, though, and the reason I brought it up in the interview, is a successful RGM requires an enormous amount of planning, a willingness to adapt as circumstances change, and a certain amount of luck for it to work. And that is a metaphor which directly applies to consistently solving difficult problems.

In my experience, many of the best problem solvers plan extensively yet are not rigidly tied to the plan, rely on a diverse set of past experiences and are willing to try a number of different approaches to attack and solve it. Of course, there is also usually a smidgen of luck involved, a hope that the pieces will all fit together.

Do you think the RGMs in the examples above just happened? Far from it.

Contrast the Rube Goldberg methodology with the Dad methodology. “Dad” in this case is also known as Calvin’s father in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Dad would answer Calvin’s straight-forward questions with completely made up, but somewhat plausible, answers. A typical exchange:

Calvin: How do they know the load limit on bridges, Dad?

Dad: They drive bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.

Calvin: Oh, I should have guessed.

Mom: Dear, if you don’t know the answer, just tell him!

What’s the tradeoff? The Rube Goldberg approach is convoluted, but gets the job done. It is incremental, methodical and arrives at a real answer. It is messy and indirect. The Calvin’s Dad approach is direct, often logical, but results in a false positive. And if you didn’t know better, the false positive might seem like a good answer.

The interview ended, and I’m sure that my interviewer decided that I was not a good match for their unique culture. I’d already decided that it wouldn’t work out. They’d left me with the distinct impression that they were a Calvin’s Dad sort of organization; they wanted people who could come up with convincing (but not necessarily correct) answers. Process and repeatability were secondary.

Did I mention that the interview took place in the heady days of Internet Bubble I? The company I interviewed with, a then high-flying internet e-services consultancy which raised tens of millions of dollars in venture funding, closed its doors in late summer, 2001.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this post.

Who are your problem solving role models?

Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges

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