The knot – the ideal metaphor for a problem

The war chariot of king Gordios stood 333 BC in Gordion. An oracle had prophesized that who dissolves the knot that connected the shaft with the chariot would control the world. Alexander the Great stepped before the chariot and dissected the bast fiber with one stroke of his sword. For two and a half thousand years the knot is the ideal metaphor for a problem.


Based on a knot the different aspects of a problem can be illustrated.

  • Problem description
    The knot is in fact a rigid object. You notice that it changes as soon as you unknot and pull its rope. At surprising places it tightens more firmly. At other places the ropes disappear to the inside. From the outside the beginning and end, the pathway or the structure are not recognizable. A good description of the knot would make the unknotting easier. Accordingly, the common understanding of a problem (when, where, who, what, whereby, why, for what) is the starting point, no matter how complete it is delineated.
  • Problem dimensions
    The rope as such is a simple object with a clear start and end. With increasing entanglement the cord becomes a simple, then a complicated and eventually a complex knot, although it is still the original rope. Each further knotting increases the enmeshment and makes the untangling more difficult. Exactly the same way, our problems are often not simple complications, but consequences of interlocked, mutual circumstances that cannot be divided and be examined like clockwork.
  • Problem relation
    Knots are everywhere – in clothing, when fishing, when climbing and naturally in the seafaring. We do not think frequently about knots. Only if the knot cannot be opened and you cannot take off the shoe, you are suddenly concerned. And only if we, personally, have difficulties, we care for a solution. We do not need to solve affairs that do not concern us. If the personal relationship is missing, we even cannot decide whether it should be solved. The same as with a knot.
  • Problem sequence
    It becomes exciting, if you ask yourself, how the knot evolved. The Gordian knot realized its purpose ideally – connecting the shaft with the chariot. Only the prophecy made a challenge out of the knot. For this reason the real trigger matters that makes the case to a problem. Sometimes you can recognize the individual steps that lead to the often unwanted outcome. These cause-effect relations are crucial for the solution. Just like a knot, the difficult problems pack more and more, the more you tinker with them.
  • Problem solving
    The dissolution of a knot results from a sober approach based on the previous look at the situation. Sometimes it is sufficient to rearrange the meanderings of the knot and dissolve them thereby. Another time, you have to concentrate on certain areas, without tightening the knot more firmly. In extreme cases, it is not enough trying to untangle the knot, since this only aggravates the situation. That was probably the sudden inspiration of Alexander, who simply cut the knot. Accordingly, we have today changes of first and second order. In the first case you get to the solution of the problem by gradual improvement. In the second case the loops are confused in such a manner that a solution only can be found by radical transformation, like smashing the existent.

Bottom line: The knot is the ideal metaphor for a problem, since it does not show all its meanderings, when dissolving it tightens more, not every knot can be solved, the many cause effect relations are difficult to understand and different classes of problems require methods with different levels of radicalness.