The Legend of the Gordian Knot
According to legend, when King Gordius of Phrygia ascended the throne, he dedicated his chariot to the Greek god Zeus and fastened it to a pole, tying it with an intricate knot which was said to be impossible to unravel. An oracle prophesied that whoever would unravel the Gordian Knot would go on to become ruler of Asia. Many flocked to the city of Gordium, hoping to try their luck. Finally, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great marched into the city. He sought out the knot, and began to search for a way to unravel it. When he could not find a way to untie the knot, he unsheathed his sword and sliced it in half. The rest is history.
The Gordian knot has thus become a metaphor for an solving an intractable problem through the use of out of the box thinking.
The Kobayashi Maru scenario – a modern day version of the problem
Star Trek fans will be familiar with this one. In the series, the Kobayashi Maru scenario is a no-win scenario given to all Starfleet cadets who are being groomed for command of a starship. In the simulation, the civilian vessel “Kobayashi Maru” becomes disabled ship in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would cause an interstellar incident. The cadet must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew – endangering the ship and his crew – or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.The purpose of the test is to test character by seeing how he or she reacts to the problem.
Captain Kirk, famously declaring that he didn’t believe in “no-win” scenarios, was the only person to beat the test.
By secretly reprogramming the simulation, he changed the parameters to allow for a scenario in which the enemy fleet could be destroyed and the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru could be performed at the same time. In the original canon, he received a commendation for his original thinking.
The very nature of Gordian Knot type problems makes them require creative and out of the box solutions, hence the application of multidisciplinary thinking and mental models would be the best way to go about solving them. The more we add to our mental toolkit, the more varied approaches we can use to find an answer. Like Kirk, I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.