What’s interesting about the nine dots problem is not necessarily the solution or if one found a solution or not. It’s about looking at the “meta” level, watching our own ways when confronted with a problem: what do we do, what do we feel, what’s going on with us?
It is as if the nine dots problem is a task given to a user — this is you in this scenario, during research in a users research lab. The goal is to find out how creative PM’s behave and react when facing a problem.
How did you feel while trying to solve the problem? Was there a sense of emergency? distress? Was there a sense of frustration (if and when) not getting the answer first time? Was there tension or tightening present in the body? Did you sense contraction? We tent to contract when we feel tense. Our body, our mind. A contracted mind is the opposite of a creative mind, problem-solving mind.
Did you run to find a solution? Was there a sense of relief when finding the solution? What was your inner reaction to the problem, what was your inner dialog? what went on in your body and mind while trying to solve the problem? Did you react or did you respond? In this context the nine-dot problem is not about the solution, but about getting to know how we tackle problems and difficulties.
The solution to the nine-dots problem lies in extending the lines beyond the imaginary square that the dots make.
Did you notice?
The problem as described above does not prevent you from going outside the dots (or the box) but our usual tendency is to see the more easy and obvious pattern — in this case, the square created by the nine dots — as the field of the problem.
The filed of the problem is the whole surface that contains the nine dots.
“If you isolate the nine dots by themselves as the domain of the problem because of the automatic way in which you perceive things and think about them, you will never find a satisfactory solution to this problem. As a consequence, you may wind up blaming yourself for being stupid, or getting angry at the problem and proclaiming it impossible or foolish, and certainly irrelevant…All the while, you are putting your energy in the wrong place. You are not seeing the full domain of the problem” (Jon kabat-zinn, “full catastrophe living”).
The nine dots problem illustrates the importance of expanding beyond our habitual, conditioned ways of seeing, thinking and acting in order to solve certain kinds of problems. We must be aware of our pre-conceptions so that they won’t limit us and our creative capabilities.
To solve a problem one needs to first recognize the problem, as well as the context of the problem. One needs to see the big picture, the small picture and the tiny pixels that make up the picture, and not confuse between them. This sprint, the next sprint, the quarterly roadmap, the goals.
Understanding the context is important. When we don’t see and recognize the bigger picture, we also limit our ability to come up with a relevant, creative solution. To understand the context we need to look directly at the extent of the problem and discern the relationship between the various isolated parts of the problem and the problem as a whole.
I once worked with a company that practiced Scrum as if it was the bible and they were orthodox religious. They worked in one-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, they released whatever was ready. The CEO was in love with this process. He came to expect new features every week. For him, a feature required one week. Any feature.
At one time I had several stories (tasks) that required more than one sprint to complete. I had an EPIC. each story by its own was small enough, but without the other releasing it did not make sense. The CEO kept asking me to postpone the epic and instead push to the sprint other things, small, stuff that would fit. He understood the potential effect the epic can have on the company goals but wanted it to fit into a one week sprint.
For a while there, we were stuck. He saw his box, the one-week sprints, and release, I saw my box, the feature set as I planned it released at the same time. To solve this and move forward, we needed to go outside our boxes. For him, it was agreeing for a longer sprint, for me it was breaking the feature release into smaller bits and releasing the whole thing over time.
Thinking outside the box requires us to recognize the box. To become aware of our own patterns of thinking, our own perspective, and to make sure we don’t make it into our own limitations. The problem of the nine dots suggests taking a broader view of the situation when tackling a problem.