Math professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird write in their book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
that great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers don’t try to solve hard problems head on.
Instead, they immediately admit defeat and create a simpler problem they can solve.
It doesn’t make sense to “waste energy vainly grappling with complexity” when they can use that energy more productively by tackling simpler cases, which will give them the insights they need to solve the original problem.
Burger and Starbird recommend that you take a similar approach in your work, whenever possible, by following the below 3 steps:
1. When you face a difficult challenge, instead of addressing it in its entirety, find a subproblem – one small element that you can focus on.
2. Solve the subproblem completely: look at the subproblem and its solution from different points of view, and consider all the connections and implications.
3. Once you’re confident that you thoroughly understand the subproblem and its solution, review your efforts and reflect on how they might relate to the original, larger problem.
This is the same approach NASA used to put the first people on the Moon.
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the country to put a person on the Moon and return them safely to Earth.
But NASA didn’t immediately suit up an astronaut and send them flying off into space — instead, their first step was to try and literally hit the Moon with a space probe. Three years later, in 1964, the Ranger 7 successfully impacted the lunar surface.
From there, it took another 5 years and 15 ever-evolving iterations before NASA solved Kennedy’s challenge with the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969.