Alexander the Great: Problem Solving, Innovation, and World Domination

Centuries before engineers like Joule and Carnot contributed to the early stages of modern engineering problem solving, monarchs were already using an ancestor of engineering analysis to defeat enemies and expand empires.

The use of logic and rational thought has threaded across disciplines of mathematics and philosophy for centuries, when such endeavors were applied to analyze everyday phenomena. Engineering analysis can be expressed as the addressing of society’s desire for progress by decomposing a larger problem into its smaller, constituent parts. Consider Alexander the Great who applied such analytical thought processes to defeat an entire navy—while his military remained on land.

Author and speakerLance Kurkedescribed how Alexander the Great had to overcome the problem of enemy forces, whose possession of an advanced navy allowed their single-handed domination of the very waterways that Alexander needed to access in order to support his army with critical food and supplies.

The immediate solution could have been for Alexander to just build his own navy and try to beat his opposition at their own game. But the time to train, build, deploy, and procure the materials and soldiers necessary for this task was resource and time prohibitive.

So how does one defeat a navy without having one’s own navy?

Make the enemy’s navy obsolete.

Alexander strategically traced back the source of the opposing navy’s strength and found that the one element that could cripple the navy was, ironically, water.

In what would be construed today by the terms network analysis, critical path analysis, or root cause analysis, to name a few, Alexander tracked how the opposing navy received their fresh drinking water supplies and found that many of those delivery routes could be cut-off on land. And one cistern at a time, the enemy navy succumbed, and Alexander defeated them while simultaneously restoring his own food and supply routes to his own forces.

The interactive and analytical methods in the engineering thought process, including the analysis of a problem and dismantling it from multiple angles, allows engineers to consider varied perspectives, each moment weighing possible solutions against incumbent constraints. The search for solutions serves as a fountainhead for even more innovations.

Within the engineering mindset for troubleshooting, atop the scientific method at its base, this same strategy is at work every single day that engineers have problems to solve or new ideas to realize. The creation of ideas as a result of troubleshooting continues to expand the engineering professional’s methodology of innovation (even if world domination doesn’t appear on your career development plan.)

Published February 16, 2011 by Austin Lin

Filed under: problem solving,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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