Frameworks for Problem-Solving (Part II)
The Redundancy Principle
This blog is written in continuation to The Multi-Threading Principle.
In the engineering context, we define redundancy as the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components. In this blog post, I lay out some ideas, redundancy techniques that I use on a regular basis to find new opportunities, solve problems and find new avenues for growth.
The Redundancy Principle
In this section, I will lay down some of the reasons why redundancy works in the real-world when we solve problems.
Multiple Line Of Attack: Generally, when we start with a problem it is doesn’t remain very clear as to what the right way to solve the problem is going to be. We usually have a few hypotheses in mind and then we pick one and try that. In this context, the redundancy principle posits that we should give multiple ideas or lines of thinking a try. This idea is heavily used by people in the finance industry, venture capital world, government policies, or even the betting industry. Venture capitalists quite often make a thesis about the world and pick 3–5 probable companies that could become billion-dollar companies. In the following section, I discuss some of the common examples of redundancy in problem-solving that we see in the world around us.
Door Knocker vs. Window Opener: One of the best analogies that I have come across when thinking about problem-solving techniques is that of the “Door Knocker vs. Window Viewer” approaches. A door-knocker approach is one in which you would try out multiple approaches for the same problem. Each door represents a solution. While knocking on the door it is not very clear as to whether the solution will work or not. However, a door-knocker remains optimistic and keeps trying many different approaches simultaneously.
The alternative approach is called the Window-Opener mindset where one would approach a problem as though viewing the solution through a window. The window-viewer only goes into solving a problem when his/her view of the solution becomes clear. Otherwise, he/she doesn’t go forward with the solution.
Redundancy in Innovation
Innovation in science and technology requires many iterations of a solution before it gets solved. It is not uncommon that many solutions are tried simultaneously by industry before a problem can be solved.
Sir James Dyson, the inventor of modern day vacuum cleaners, came up with the idea of the final design after 5,127 iterations over the course of 5 years.
There are no fewer than 23 people who deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel, and Bernard Finn.
Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day.
We know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, four of the decimal fractions, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. (Reference: The Evolution of Everything By Matt Ridley).
Redundancy in Engineering
The idea of redundancy is quite heavily used in the world of software development. One of the techniques that derive its fundamental ideas from redundancy is called RAID, Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. RAID is a data storage virtualization technology that combines multiple physical disk drive components into one or more logical units for the purposes of data redundancy, performance improvement, or both. The core-idea behind RAID is to ensure that the stored data is never lost if one of the storage units gets corrupted.
Redundancy in Venture Capital
A very good example of redundancy in venture capital is Google Venture’s investments in Waymo and Uber’s self-driving division. It shows the following:
- Google has a clear thesis about the advent of the self-driving car revolution.
- Google still doesn’t necessarily believe that a one-fits-all solution will work and that there will be multiple players in the game.
This is a classic example of an approach where multiple lines of attack are used by industry to solve a problem.
Redundancy in Finance
Hedging is a risk management strategy employed to offset losses in investments by taking an opposite position in a related asset. The core idea behind a hedge fund is to be able to hedge a bet on a financial asset so as to make money if the asset moves in one direction. At the same time, the losses are minimized by taking a lower bet on the asset’s movement in the other direction. In keeping with the aim of these vehicles to make money, regardless of whether the stock market climbs higher or declines, managers can hedge themselves by going long (if they foresee a market rise) or shorting stocks (if they anticipate a drop.
This is a classic example of redundancy where the person taking the bet ensures that the problem (estimating the value of an asset) is done in multiple possible ways.
Redundancy in Medicine
One of the most widely used techniques for curing/fighting against cancer in human beings is Chemotherapy. The technique invariably involves a combination of many modalities such as the use of drugs with other cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy, or hyperthermia therapy.
In the image below, we can see the combination of many different drugs that are used to treat different types of cancers using Chemotherapy.
Why? One of the reasons why oncologists prefer a multi-modal treatment is because of the complexity of the human body and the variations in the types/stages of cancer cell growth. While cancer for a certain segment of patients may recede away due to drugs, for some patients it becomes important to perform surgeries and remove that portion of the body part through surgery. It is very nearly impossible for trained/experienced oncologists to explain what is the mode or line of attack that will work for a particular patient. (Reference: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).
Redundancy in Religion
The emergence of multiple religions in human history is another example of redundancy when solving large, complex problems.
The core purpose of religion is to create peace and happiness in human mind.
Peace and happiness are broad, complex terms that vary a lot from individual to individual. The meaning of God, happiness, satisfaction, love, kindness, etc. varies from culture to culture. Therefore, it is extremely hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can permeate all the different societies of the world. We thus have emergent cultures such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. None of these religions are complete in themselves and appeal to every society. Each of the religions has their own philosophy and it is up to the human mind to adopt/reject these philosophies.
To me, this is an apt example where redundancy is necessitated by the underlying complexity and diversity of the natural systems of the world.
Redundancy in Social Networks
The world that we live in today is vastly complex and requires many different sorts of communication modalities. This is reflected in the many social networks that abound our daily lives. Some of these include WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, WeChat, Clubhouse, etc. All of them do satisfy similar requirements such as being able to socialize on the world wide web. However, each of them also specifically targets a use-case very deeply. Some of the differences are as follows:
- WhatsApp excels at low-bandwidth chat in emerging economies.
- Instagram excels at content sharing primarily through images.
- Clubhouse excels at social-networking through audio.
- Facebook is a general-purpose engine that primarily focuses on images and video content sharing.
- Twitter is a celebrity-led platform that focuses on micro-blogging.
After analyzing the redundancy in the many different spheres of life one can start rationalizing as to why the different forms of redundancies exist. The fundamental reason as to why redundancy is required in solving problems tends to stem from the underlying complexity in the living world. Complex systems such as the human immune system, communication networks, startups, innovation pathways, etc. require many different factors to come together for the problem to be eventually solved. Therefore, in order to move the needle, it is a good strategy to attack the problem with 2–3 different solutions and experiments. We should then follow the path that seems to pay the highest dividends.
Articles & Blogs
- The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge By Matt Ridley
- The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee