Are there unsolvable problems? Does looking at a problem from different points of view help solving it?

It’s all about hot dogs.

The picture is taken from one of the most famous annual hot dog competitions in the USA. The two guys are two competitors. I may tell you that one of the two is the winner of the competition once and I may suggest that one of the two won more than once the competition. I may also add that one of the two can eat 110 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And guess what, it’s the one on the right. Yes, the slim Asian guy, you are not looking to the wrong image. His name is Takeru Kobayashi.

 As reported by The Guardian, Kobayashi had observed that most eaters had a similar strategy, which was essentially a quicker version of how the average individual eats a hot dog at a weekend barbecue: pick it up, kick the dog and bun into the mouth, chew, and drank some water to wash down. Kobayashi wondered whether there was a better way. Nowhere was it written, for instance, that you must eat the dog end to end. What if he broke the dog and bun in half before eating? That, he found, comprehended more options for chewing and loading.

Kobayashi, at this point, questioned another practice: eating the dog and bun at the same time. The dog itself is a compressed tube of dense and salty meat that can practically slide down the gullet on its own. While airy and less substantial, the bun takes up a lot of space and requires a lot of chewing. So he started removing the dog from the bun. Now he could feed himself a handful of bun-less dogs, broken in half, followed by a round of buns. As quickly as he was able to swallow the hot dogs, the bun was still a problem.

So Kobayashi tried something different as he was feeding himself the bun-less, broken hot dogs with one hand and used the other hand to throw the bun into his water glass. Then he’d squeeze out most of the extra water and throw the bun into his mouth. Eating soggy buns meant Kobayashi was less thirsty, which meant less time wasted on drinking. He videotaped his training sessions and recorded his data in a spreadsheet, hunting for inefficiencies and lost milliseconds. The Japanese champion experimented with pace. For instance, was it better to go hard the first four minutes, ease off during the middle four and “sprint” toward the end, or maintain a steady pace throughout? He also found that getting a lot of sleep was especially important. So was weight training since it seemed that strong muscles aided in eating and helped resist the urge to throw up. He also discovered that he could make more room in his stomach by wriggling jumping as he ate.

The result? In 2001, at the Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, he ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record of 25.

How can we be more effective in defining the problem?

I believe that from this story, we can learn that destructuring the problem into smaller chunks is a powerful tool to solve it, and these are two models that can help you do that:

Jake Knapp, the author of the book “Sprints,” described how teams organised dense weeks of team-working in Google whenever they faced a particular problem. Interestingly, half of the week was focused on problem definition. After the specific issue that the team wanted to tackle was clear, they started coming up with solutions. On the other hand, everyone who has ever joined a brainstorming session, hackathon, or business game should be familiar with that annoying feeling. Players usually tend to forget the scope of the session and focus on explaining why their idea is better than the others.

Source: Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp

Eventually, the methodology of Design Thinking emerged, and now the double diamond framework has become popular in companies and organisations. You can see how it matches the Sprint-week agenda beautifully above. Design Thinking is divided into four phases:

  1. Problem expansion: an intense brainstorming on discovering what is the user/team is facing
  2. Problem reduction: through a series of tests and analyses, the problem is defined, and its scope is reduced
  3. Solution expansion: now that the problem is apparent, different solutions are prototyped
  4. Solution reduction: the answers are improved, refined until finding the perfect one.

Notice how the diamond has two specular expansion and reduction phases.


We definitely just scratched the surface of the process that enables innovation in companies and organisation, and if you are interested in the topics, here you can find the sources used in the article that can help you learn more:

  1. Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp
  2. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt

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