This year the Rubik’s cube marks 40 years since it was officially launched. It was created by a Hungarian teacher, Erno Rubik to explain architectural concepts to his students but ended up becoming the world’s most famous toy, with close to half a billion pieces sold, not counting the many rip offs and duplicates that flooded the market.
When it first appeared, I remember staring with awe, as my younger brother Rudolph first solved the six sides. It was considered the Mount Everest of puzzles and my brother was a pioneer in our eyes. Those were the days before algorithms that are used today to solve it. Those days it was just the brute force of your intelligence, creativity and yes, your persistence that helped you solve it. What leadership lessons does the cube teach us?
More than anything else it calls for patience and persistence. To this day I have never solved more than three sides and I think it is simply because I did not have the patience and chose not to persist. Most human problems and leadership problems need this — the patience to persevere. The willingness to give the problem-solving process, time. In one of my all-time favourite books, The Road Less Travelled , by Scott Peck talks about problem-solving and time. He considered himself a ‘mechanical idiot’ until he met a neighbour repairing his lawnmower and remarked with admiration that he could never do things like that. The neighbour gave him what turned out to be a life-changing response: “ That’s because you don’t take the time.” Doctor Peck had an opportunity soon enough when a patient’s parking brake was stuck. They knew there was something to be done under the dashboard to release it.
Applying his newly won insight, Doctor Peck took time to lie down on the car floor below the dashboard. He took his time to become comfortable and gazed at the apparent jumble of wires and cables. In no rush, he carefully studied what was where. Soon he figured out what lever of the brake apparatus needed a slight pressure on it and immediately the brake was released. As he puts it “I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time.” This is a lesson the Rubik’s cube drives home very clearly. Going back to my brother, I remember him taking the time to solve one, then two, then three sides as he patiently stayed with the problem until he had solved it. The business world values speed, but very often business leaders focused on speed end up with short term or inappropriate solutions. Very often the cure ends up being worse than the disease. Demonetisation, whose anniversary we just marked, is such an example.
A ‘cannon was used to kill a mosquito’ and wreaked havoc on the lives of common people, with the stated target of black money hoarders going almost scot-free. Hiring that is rapid-fire often comes back as rapid-firing that has to be done later. An acquisition that is rushed through, in search of PR sound bites can bring an organization to its knees. Hastily chosen technology solutions turn out to be a case of ‘fitting the horse to the horseshoe’. A start-up that mashes a co-founder team without giving thought to the value each member brings or the connection quotients between each of them, ends up in a crash and burn. Most serious problems take time and demand patience. The leader who accepts that, is willing to create the space for patience in herself and her team. She signals that while speed is valued, it is long-lasting and effective solutions that count for more.
Solving the Rubik’s cube is a constant see-saw between the present and the future. The solver is making multiple leaps ahead to get snapshots of the consequences of each of his mini actions. He looks at six sides before he changes anything on one. He steps back, he zooms in and each time with the benefit of perspective he is able to make a move that gets him closer to the eventual solution.
Perspective also allows us to pivot better. The story is told of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer pursuing his ambition to be the first to reach the North Pole. He captured the imagination of his countrymen with the never-done-before nature of his goal – got enormous funding, borrowed a 400-tonne ship and got a brave crew together, only to discover that Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, American explorers had beaten him to the North Pole. He knew he had the resources; the team, the capabilities in place. He just redefined his goal to ‘what else is there that hasn’t been done before that could be a voyage of scientific discovery?’. He sailed — but to a different destination and became the first person to reach the South Pole.
This is where creativity counts. The ability to see the bigger picture, to view things from a different angle. Flights and cruises to nowhere, were small Covid pivots, the travel industry used to utilise their assets and get some cash coming in. A different perspective helped come up with that solution.
Problem solving process
Problem solving is a process. Even when people seem to be instinctively able to solve problems, they are in some way applying a process or harvesting the training of process-thinking. Often problem solving begins with creativity, but over time the creativity morphs into a process that enables solving the problem at scale and in a repeatable and predictable way. The algorithms that the early solvers of the Rubik’s cube helped create, today enable speed cubing. In 2018, Feliks Zendegs solved the cube in 4.22 seconds. That was considered blazing fast until Yusheng Du broke that record with a single solve of 3.47 seconds.
Creativity, patience, and perspective help create a better problem-solving process. What many leaders fail to do is to go the distance on this. A problem is solved, and everyone goes back to work as usual. The lessons are not captured, the process is not outlined. As Erno Rubik put it in an interview with Harvard Business Review, “Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge. It is building the capacity to find new possibilities in novel circumstances.” I haven’t heard a better definition of learning. And this is where leaders often fail — in seeking to build that capacity to find new possibilities in novel circumstances.
The Rubik’s cube also teaches us the lesson of simplicity — no battery, no instructions required to play, and yet it became a global sensation — with a rebirth of sorts during the Covid lockdowns. It appeals across generations and continues to challenge our minds. Solutions to complex problems are most often simple (as Doctor Peck would warn us — that does not mean they are easy) and perhaps, leaders must learn to un-complicate their thinking, de-clutter their minds, and build some patience, perspective and process.