Gedunken-ing your business…

If it can help Einstein come up with his “relativity theories”, I’m sure it can help you solve that teensie-weensie business problem that’s dogging you…

At the age of 16, Albert Einstein imagined chasing a light beam through space. He imagined flying so fast that he would finally catch up with that light particle and fly along side it, just as someone on Earth would try to match pace with a train.

Superboy running along with the train. Superman I (1978). copyright: Warner Bros (?)

And just as the train would look stationary if you kept pace with it, Einstein imagined seeing the photon as if it weren’t moving. But, he reasoned, that if the light particle weren’t moving, it would no longer be a light particle (because photons are never at rest), and so, light would always move at a constant velocity and if he were to catch up to it, it would speed away from him at the speed of light.

This vivid and crazy thought experiment of a teenager, later led Einstein to develop the Special Theory of Relativity.

The German term for Thought Experiment is Gedunken.

Creative problem solving is a challenge for most people because most people have forgotten how to be creative, or rather to be precise, imaginative.

Imagination is not just the domain of art, irrespective of what that art might entail. Imagination is a part of the creative problem solving process and hence it applies to all domains where creativity as a tool/quality is used to solve problems and one of those domains is business.

source: Time Magazine

And Gedunken or thought experiments is a type of imaginative thinking. But, I must elaborate a bit on this. Experiments are conducted to prove or disprove something. Unlike regular imagination that is the process of thinking differently and/or fantastically about a situation (like a new feature of a product), thought experiment is a process that is carried out to prove or disprove a hypothesis that the experimenter may have. Thought experiments are carried out in many domains of science and is one of the primary tools in the kit of psychologists and theoretical physicists (like Einstein). Unfortunately, it’s not seen used so often in mainstream business and strategic thinking.

In my lectures for using thought experiments, I provide the following examples where the process can be used.

Product Design

When I ask students to design a product, I ask them to visualize themselves in the shoes of the user. From the moment the person first interacts with the product, what are the different things that s/he may do? Bring in elements of the product to see whether it enhances the experience of the user or effectiveness of the usage. For example, does putting a button (on a graphical user interface of a software) make it simpler for the user to click it? Or in space design (like architecture or interior design), does the placement of the light switch here instead of there, make it easier for the user to turn on the right set of lights as needed?

Basically, do a mental walk-through through the eyes of the user with an objective to prove the hypothesis that the product you have built (or are planning to build) achieves the purpose of ease of use, enhanced experience and increased productivity.

Marketing Strategy

Start with the basics and the first step. If you execute ‘A’ what are the different outcomes? How do people (customers, employees, vendors, etc.) react to it? If you want ‘B’ results from people, what modifications in ‘A’ would make the equation perfect for those involved? So, for example, if you want a new set of people to buy your product, instead of going forward along with the bandwagons, why not go backwards from the customer?

This is similar to doing a maze puzzle. One way to solve it is, of course to start from the point that says, “START”, bump into dead-ends, retrace steps multiple times until you reach the END. Another, more productive way is to start from “END” and chalk your way backwards. There is only one possible way and hence the number of retraces would be far lesser than if you solved the puzzle the regular way.

Try it yourself. Start at the top left and get out at the bottom right.

source: Lake Lanier


In business operations, there are a lot of dependencies, some of which may not present themselves in initial planning, but spring up as a surprise when it is least expected.

In the case of operations, you follow the regular path of the maze puzzle and identify all the places that might be a dead-end, requires something else or needs to change.

Your aim is to see if by following the steps outlined in the process document yield the results expected. And it’s better to virtually run through the entire process before actually taking the first step.

Programmers call this ‘dry-run’, where they mentally walk through the written code, calculate all the outcomes and determines errors and bugs before they actually compile and/or run the code, or worse ship the code.

  1. Fly as fast as light
  2. Catch up to light
  3. Look on your side, do you see light frozen?
  4. Yes! Light isn’t what it seems or defined correctly.
  5. No! Something else must be warping
  6. Jot down “Special Theory of Relativity”

source: unknown

To purists, the example mentioned above may not be pure forms of thought experiments, and they may be right to an extent, but as I mentioned earlier, these are experiments carried out, in one’s mind, to determine whether the expected outcome is true or false (proven or disproved). And so, as far as the method meets its purpose, all is jolly!

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