A Parable for Decision Makers

Like most business leaders today, Alexander the Great was confronted with a complex issue, and he needed to make a decision. Unlike today, he did not have a mobile phone, or access to information@alexanderthegreat.com. He just had extraordinary skills in problem solving and decision making. Let me share the story with you.

Long ago, the Kingdom of Phrygia had been founded by an old countryman, who was driving his ox-cart into the city when two eagles flew down and settled on the yoke. The people thought that this was a sign from the gods. The cart was kept in the city's chief temple, and it was prophesied that whoever loosened the knot that fastened the yoke to the pole should become King of Asia.


As he moved across Asia Minor, Alexander the Great came across the knot and the story. He studied the knot for a long time, but could see neither beginning nor end to its twists and turns. The story goes that he drew his sword and cut it with a decisive blow.

This is why we still talk of "cutting the Gordian knot" when someone solves a complicated problem by bold and decisive action.

Unlike the conventional wisdom of Alexander's day, the contemporary wisdom of our day is that reams of data and statistics are needed to make decisions. Modern decision-makers have personal computers sporting vast spreadsheets and huge databases. They receive monthly reports from team members that take many pages just to say that everything is okay.

If Alexander the Great had had this kind of information, the Gordian knot would still be safely tied.

Most modern decision-makers want to be Gordian knot cutters, not knot studiers. They want to be bold, confident and smart in their use of information. Alexander, when faced with the problem of the Gordian knot, did not form a Gordian-knot committee. He did not ask for reports documenting the legend or describing the knot. Alexander did not ask for endless feasibility studies, financial analyses, risk studies, or legal opinion. He simply cut the knot.

Modern decision-makers often find themselves submerged in irrelevant data and statistics. Too great a volume leaves the modern decision-maker studying the knot, instead of solving the problem.

As you employ more and more knot-cutting strategies and your organisation begins to react more quickly, knot studiers will be compelled to make timely decisions or fall behind. Eventually, knot studiers will have to become knot cutters or find a market for their knot knowledge in someone else's company.