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Romy, chief technology officer for a small software company, knocked on the door of her chief people officer, Michelle. As in many small companies, they each had responsibilities far beyond that of titular role. And one of those had Romy stumped.

“Got a minute, Michelle?” Romy asked. “I’d appreciate your input. You always have such different viewpoints than everyone else.”

“Sure, come on in,” Michelle waved. “I’d say take a seat, but I know you aren’t going to sit still until you have this resolved. What’s going on?”

“It’s this marketing campaign I’m working on. I really wish we could find a marketing person, because I know nothing about it.”

Michelle raised her eyebrows. “Nothing? You’ve been doing a bang-up job so far.”

“Well, I’m learning as fast as I can. I’m finding it a lot like engineering, actually: everyone has an opinion about the right way to do things, and everyone’s opinion is different.”

Michelle laughed. “Sounds about right,” she said in commiseration. “Now you know why I never offer to help.”

Romy laughed in return. “Well, now you’re going to help. Unless you retract your offer now that you know what it’s about?”

“No, no, I’m not kicking you out just because it’s about marketing. And besides, you explicitly asked me for viewpoints, not for marketing ideas. Viewpoints I’m always happy to share.”

“I’m glad your offer still stands. Because I really need your help. I have almost everything ready to go. There’s just one piece that refuses to come into focus. It feels important, yet it also feels wrong. I’ve tried everything I know to puzzle out what’s wrong, and I am still stuck.”

Michelle clucked empathetically. “I used to encounter that all the time.”

“You did?” Romy asked in surprise. “But you have so many ideas! I can’t imagine you ever being stuck.”

“I have so many ideas now. I didn’t use to. Then a friend gave me the tool I’m about to share with you. That made a world of difference.”

“I’m all ears.”

“So, you have a thing that feels important yet not correct, and you don’t know how to make it correct. Break it down into its constituent parts.”

Romy stared at Michelle confusedly. “Break it down into its constituent parts? What do you mean? It doesn’t have parts, constituent or otherwise.”

“Everything has parts, Romy. This desk we’re sitting at is made of wood and metal. Wood is made of cells, and this metal is an alloy of other metals. Eventually, both break down to atoms. Atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. I’m certain that science will soon discover quarks and electrons are made of some even more fundamental particle. It’s never going to stop.”

“Turtles all the way down,” Romy said, nodding. “Okay. So, yes. Now that I think about it, I can break this puzzlement down into smaller pieces.”

“Do any of those smaller pieces feel important?”

Romy considered. “Yes, two of them feel important.”

“Do they both feel correct?”

“Ummm, one does. Not the other.”

“So, you’ve found one piece of your puzzle, the one that feels correct. The other one, break it down into its components.”

“I can tell where this is going,” Romy asserted. “Break the not-yet-correct piece down into its pieces parts, determine which of those feels important and not yet correct, and repeat the cycle. Okay.”

Romy pulled out her tablet and started making notes. Michelle knew better than to break Romy’s concentration once she got going, plus Romy always made the funniest faces while she worked. So, Michelle quietly watched Romy work.

“Oh!” She made a few more notes, then put her tablet away.

“Found the solution you were looking for?” Michelle asked.

“I did,” Romy confirmed. “That technique is golden. Thank you so much. Does it have a name?”

“No idea if it has an official name. My friend didn’t tell me if it does. I call it the Turtle Algorithm. Because, as you said, it’s turtles all the way down.”

“The Turtle Algorithm. I love it.”

Romy started to get up, then sat down again. “Thank you, Michelle, for helping me out today. You helped me solve my problem, just like I hoped you would. I couldn’t decide what to do because, no matter what I did, this one piece of my marketing plan felt not quite. Breaking the parts that felt important yet not right into their parts, and so on, let me remove the not-right bits and uncover the important-and-perfect bits. Now I can finish up my proposal and send it out to the team.”

“You are so welcome, Romy. I’m glad I could help. I can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with!”

“Give me half an hour and I’ll have out to you and everyone else for review.”

“I’ll be on tenterhooks.”

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