The Rubber Elephant Effect

On August 19, 2010, in Business, Miscellaneous, Running, by Robert Dallison

If you’re anything like me, you occasionally get stuck trying to solve a problem that just won’t give way. Sometimes it goes on for hours, and the harder you work at it the less progress you seem to make.

Accountants have numbers that don’t add up. Sales executives have deals that just won’t close. Scientists have experiments that refuse to turn out right.

Amateur or professional, journeyman or genius, it happens to all of us at one point or another – no matter our field of expertise or level of experience.

Even Michelangelo struggled for years with frescos that did not hold their color, or marble blocks that shattered unexpectedly at the stroke of his chisel.

Years ago, one of my colleagues (let’s call him Chris) found an original if rather eccentric way of dealing with this kind of problem. He was a talented software developer, responsible not only for writing computer programs, but also for fixing them when they broke.

One time Chris struggled for days with an intractable software problem. Out of frustration he broke his usual pattern of solitary reflexion, and chatted about it with some colleagues. They were equally perplexed, and unable to offer any suggestions. However, when Chris returned to his desk, he suddenly saw the solution with total clarity.

By talking about the problem to other people, he had somehow modified his perception of it, and was able to break through to a solution. Interestingly, this was not a one-off experience. He was able to repeat it, and started to get a reputation for solving software errors faster than most.

At a certain point Chris realized that this shift in perception was not due to the people he spoke to, but rather to the fact that he externalized his problem, stating it in terms that were different from his thought patterns when considering the issue inside his own head.

Here’s the eccentric bit – when he realized that the process itself was more important than the participants, he brought a rubber elephant to work and placed it on his desk. The rubber elephant became his long-suffering audience, and Chris continued to solve many software issues without having to bore his colleagues every time he needed a sounding board.

So there it is, the Rubber Elephant Effect.

Thanks to my colleague Chris (he’s real by the way, and will recognize himself if he reads this), when I get stuck on a problem that I cannot solve, I quickly look for a way to change my perception of the problem. Often this means getting other people involved, but sometimes I just go for a run instead, or maybe even sleep on it – answers have been known to come at 3 am.

I never took the leap of faith to try the true Rubber Elephant Effect, but if you have a good toy store nearby you might find that it works for you!

(image courtesy of Armando Maynez)


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