Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reduction: How To Swallow An Elephant

If something can be done, then it most likely can also be undone. That’s not necessarily bad, especially when you need to accomplish a task, and that task is overwhelmingly complex. The trick is to break it down into smaller component parts, then work on the individual pieces. The European colonial masterminds, during the age when Europeans were annexing most of the world outside Europe, had this down to a science. They called it “divide and conquer,” and this seemingly simple notion was all they needed to subjugate much of Asia, including the Indian and Chinese powerhouses.

The complexity instantly evaporates, and we’re faced with small, managable morsels of the original challenge. The trick then is to deal with each little bit, with each piece of success ultimately adding up to the big picture. Each component part of the big picture is like a little step on the road that ultimately takes us all the way to our destination.

Just last week, I attended a week-long course on I.T. Project Management at the Asian Institute of Management here in Manila. Much of the second day was devoted to understanding and applying “weebies” or work breakdown structures (WBS). Given a specific project, we were asked to break this down into component tasks. After that, we carefully scrutinized the resulting list, and sought out the tasks that could further be broken down into even smaller tasks. And so on, iterating through the process until we had chunks of work no greater than 40 hours apiece.

The best example of reduction I can think of from my own experiences was back in college, when I found myself taking part in the campus debate competitions of 1986 – 87. I had just transferred from UP Diliman to UP Los Baños, where I eventually joined the UP Student Catholic Action. Far from being prayerful and contemplative, the UPSCA during that time was rather left-leaning, and some of its members were true blue radicals who translated leftist sentiments into tangible, if rather disruptive, deeds.

In any case, these were a smart bunch of people. Some of the best young minds I’ve ever encountered; so fiercely idealistic, and so overflowing with social angst. UPSCA had always taken part in the UPLB Great Campus debate, and was a perennial winner in that annual event. The year I joined UPSCA, they had sniffed out my previous experience in my high school debate team, and tapped me to be part of the three-man team (well, two men and a woman, actually) for this year.

Our captain, Francis, was hard-driving, energetic, extremely opinionated, and totally confident in his abilities. I was the second speaker, and Lourie, a methodical and thorough young lady, was the backup. This was a tremendously talented team, and what we lacked in overall charisma, we more than made up for in sheer firepower.

But formidable as this team was, its real strength was in the coaching staff. The coaches, of course, consisted of the wiseguys in the organization; those with lots to say, but who would rather sit on the sidelines than actually bask in the frontlines of battle. And of these wiseguys, none were wiser than our two secret weapons… Apo and Bing.

Apo was a bona fide social strategist who, as I remember, was great at exposing patterns of social behavior. He was a deep and profound thinker, able to thread together complex scenarios from the barest of facts. I remember thinking that Apo had a marvelous mind trapped in a body suffering from some congenital physical deformity. Bing, on the other hand, was the technician with the wide repertoire of intellectual moves. He’d grab whatever elaborate conceptual subtlety Apo would toss up into the air, and hammer it into a tangible strategem for us to employ. By the time these two were done, we had about 80 percent of our battle plan drawn. All that remained was for us to execute during the debate itself.

Reduction was their weapon of choice. They would start off with the given resolution, say, “All men are created equal.” Then they’d get right down to stripping this into the main arguments both for and against. Then they would get each argument, and they’d strip each one down to its component logic, or to its accompanying dogma, or to its inherent legitimacy. They would continue on and on until the entire truth was laid ot before us like a bucket of Lego bricks. All we had to do was know each piece by heart, and then put them together as necessary during the debate itself.

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