The minimal subproblem

In my work recently, I was beating my head against the wall trying to solve a particular problem. It seemed to me that getting the solution to that problem, however difficult, was a bridge that I must cross, in order to get to the place I wanted to be.

Then today, during a meeting about something else entirely, I realized that I could instead solve a far easier problem — crossing a little side bridge, as it were — and use that much easier path to find a good enough solution to the larger problem.

It occurs to me that there must be some principle at work here, some simpler and more productive way of looking at the solving of seemingly intractable problems. Perhaps it could be called the “minimal subproblem” principle.

2 Responses to “The minimal subproblem”

  1. CC says:

    Oh, absolutely. This is the core of my problem solving process.

  2. Alan Kay says:

    Hi Ken

    In a talk I used to give at Disney I showed a flat world (pink, naturally) as seen from above with a starting place at the bottom and a goal at the top. The natural impulse of human beings is to aim directly at the goal. Then I rotated the world in 3D to reveal a deep canyon running left to right that would make the direct aim approach almost impossible (and at least very expensive).

    This was a box canyon, so one could take a very indirect route, but still get to the goal much quicker and more easily than the direct course.

    Then I pointed out that if the goal was important, that some mysterious process called “invention research” could be done to make a superhighway for the indirect route, or a bridge, or an airplane.

    This is a very hard idea for some business people to understand. I sometimes ask CEOs if they will be in business in 10 years, and they always say scornfully “Of course!”. Then I ask “Where’s your 10 year plan?”

    P.S. It would be great to have an updated version of the 2D/3D graphic for this example!



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