Feynman Technique

If you are anything like me you prefer simplicity to complicated.

Others might disagree.

It certainly seems so, as there are too many overcomplicated solutions to problems out there. Too many overengineered products or services. Too much complicated language to describe, ideas, problems and solutions.

We mustn’t, however, confuse complex and complicated. Complex means there are many parts, complicated means something is too difficult.

It is to our advantage to simplify the complicated whilst not attempting to remove complexity.

So, how might we simplify a problem?

Let’s look to Richard Feynman. The Nobel Prize winning physicist played by Matthew Broderick (Bueller!…Bueller!…Bueller!) in the biopic Infinity.

Richard Feynman was an extraordinary person. He managed to find ways of understanding and describing complex physics, so that it simplified what was complicated and advanced quantum theory. Now, that doesn’t mean an awful lot to me, as I am not particularly skilled with regards to physics. But, his techniques are applicable outside of physics, and that means a lot to me.

How Richard Feynman made it simple enough for me.

It is safe to say that a Nobel Prize Winner can be considered high on the level of genius. If we routinely call soccer stars geniuses for a nifty bit of footwork then perhaps genius is not a worthy enough word for Feynman’s level of excellence?

Feynman wanted to break down the walls to understanding by removing some of the overcomplicated language used to describe problems and solutions.

He felt that those that use jargon are possibly masking a lack of deep understanding.

To that end he created a framework for gaining a deeper understanding of any chosen topic.

The technique involves four key steps:

  1. Setting the Stage
  2. ELI5 (Explain Like I’m 5)
  3. Reflect and simplify
  4. Organize, Convey & Review

Step 1: Setting the Stage

Decide on the topic you wish to learn more about. Perhaps you have a problem you already need to focus on.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you know about the problem or topic. If you are in a team then do this separately before sharing.

This stage is very important as it will allow you to understand the common level of understanding of a topic. If you are attempting to market a new product this might be the only moment you have the same level of understanding as the people you are marketing to.

Once you have your initial understanding, then you can commence your research.

With each new bit of knowledge add it to your sheet. Use a different colour to aid in seeing the new knowledge from the prior knowledge. This might highlight those areas that might need to be explained and even introduced to others.

Once you understand the problem or topic then move onto step 2.

Step 2: ELI5

Explain the problem or topic to me like I am 5  (I’ve seen 11 and 12 quoted here too, but I prefer 5 as 5 year olds are at that age of curiosity that they ask why a lot and that helps to make this stage fun and useful).

This might be a figurative “explain like I’m 5” or, if you’re brave, you can find an actual 5 year old.

Concentrate on using simple words and removing jargon.

If you find yourself getting frustrated or the nominal 5 year old doesn’t understand you then this might be showing you gaps in your own understanding and knowledge. Go to step 1.

Step 3: Reflect & Simplify

If you find yourself getting frustrated or the nominal 5 year old doesn’t understand you then this might be showing you gaps in your own understanding and knowledge.

Review the areas that are frustrating to describe or the 5 year old doesn’t understand and go to step 1 to research further.

Only when it is simple enough for a child can we be confident enough we really understand this topic or problem.

Step 4: Organize, Convey & Review

Write out your topic or problem as a story. Make sure it follows a narrative so others can understand it too.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

– Albert Einstein

Get in touch with us today to discuss developing a playful, creative mindset in your teams.

The Life of an Idea

I have two stories that I want to tell here that illustrate The life of an idea and how an idea might find its purpose. This is the case for things we may perceive as bad ideas. Because ideas have lives beyond our control.

So what is the life of an idea? How can it adapt, grow or change?

Show tune to anthem of a city

A friend of mine runs a friendly free competition each week. On a Monday, she sets a theme and we pick songs that fit. Three choices max, non-negotiable, no refunds. Last week, the theme we had to respond to was “songs from musicals that had a life outside the show they were written for”.

The winner was the Rodgers and Hammerstein song You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. Now, a song from a hit musical is far from a bad idea, but it illustrates the point I’m attempting to make well.

You see, this song has gone from being a song from a musical to being, probably, the most loved football anthem in the world. But before that, it became an unlikely pop hit in the 1960s for the Merseyside group Gerry and the Pacemakers. Musical numbers are not often in the charts unless part of the cast recording.

I doubt Rodgers & Hammerstein had it in mind to write a pop hit. Carousel is from 1945, before the pop charts, which started in 1952 (pub quiz/trivia fans). I further doubt they intended to write a sporting anthem.

Finding new meaning in the song

Fast forward to 1989, when I attended the FA Cup Final.

This was just a few months after Hillsborough, the biggest football tragedy the UK has ever had. Added to the tragedy, the UK Press, Police and Government all blamed Liverpool fans for the tragedy. We now know, after 30 years that this was not true. So, the people of Liverpool felt the world was lining up to take shots at them, and it just happened that the two teams from Liverpool, Liverpool FC and Everton FC were the teams in the final.

The day started with high excitement and emotion. But a moment I will never forget is when Gerry Marsden from Gerry & The Pacemakers led the crowd in singing this anthem. Standing in that crowd and hearing them claim the song felt like a defiant city claiming their own truth.

The song was always intended to uplift the characters in the show, but it also managed to uplift a city when it was most needed. This anthem later spurred on a campaign to allow the truth about the Hillsborough disaster to come out.

This song shows how an idea has its own life.

A Failed Idea?

I am willing to wager that most people reading this will not have heard of Charles Barbier. He has a particularly strong claim to being the origin of a system that has helped millions of people over the years.

At one time Barbier was an Artillery Captain in the French Army. He was dismayed by the number of deaths on the battlefield at night and attempted to solve the problem. He realised that messages to the troops at night needed to be read. This made it necessary to use a light to read the message. The light made the soldier an easy target for enemy artillery.

Barbier created a system of 12 raised dots that would allow soldiers to read in the dark. It was not an instant success, soldiers found the system difficult to learn or remember. However, Barbier demonstrated his system at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA), where a teenager in the audience understood that this could help him and others like him.

Enter the teenager with a different need

Louis Braille was blinded at the age of 3. Despite the disability of not being able to see Louis, remember he was only a teenager at this time, had a vision of how this system could be redesigned and simplified.

The system Braille created halved the number of dots from 12 to 6. As a result of its simplicity and application, the system has been adopted around the world.

Braille’s system has become an important enabler for many with vision disabilities. The USA has a population of around 85,000 people. Some of them have learned Braille, some haven’t. 90% of those that have learned Braille are employed. You can read about this in Dave Trott’s excellent book The Power of Ignorance. Comparing that figure to the 33% employment rate in those who haven’t learned Braille provides the illustration of the lasting legacy of the application of the idea.

The life of an idea can have long lasting effects.

Successful Ideas Find the Right Application

We can find further applications for ideas and can cause successful in ways the source had not imagined. We can even apply failed or failing ideas in other ways and find success. What is holding us back from finding new, simpler or better applications for all the ideas out there?

Is it a lack of curiosity? A lack of willingness to play and experiment? Is there a lack of diversity in the voices expressing needs and requirements? I would say it is all three and probably many more factors too.

But we can find playful ways of being curious, experimental, and most importantly hearing each other.

Get in touch with us today to discuss developing a playful, creative mindset in your teams.

Need Help With Getting Creative?

Book a free 30-minute call | No obligation conversation

Book A Free Consultation