Episode #69: To Be, or Knot to Be

Grad Conn

February 3, 202110 min read

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Sometimes, the best way to tackle a problem is to approach it from a completely different angle. The legend of the Gordian Knot illustrates this perfectly. The next time you’re faced with an apparently intractable problem, you might want to look to Alexander the Great for inspiration.

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All right, all right, all right. Man, I love rocking into the tunes of Jimi Hendrix. This is my favorite part of every day. This is the CXM Experience. As always, I’m your host, Grad Conn, CXO, chief experience officer at Sprinklr, the world’s leading experience company. So, I want to talk a little bit about a mindset story today. But before I do that, I’m having a fun experience right now on Disney+, which is actually a big Sprinklr customer. Disney+ is, I think, probably the most successful new channel introduction ever. And they used Sprinklr to do it, which is pretty cool. And of course, I’m a Disney fanatic as anyone who knows me at all knows. Once spent nearly a year in Disneyland, went every day. So, we’ll tell that story some other time.

But I was watching a new show on the Disney+ channel. It’s from their Marvel Studios. And it’s a really cool show. And if you’ve not seen it, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It’s called WandaVision. And it’s about the red witch and Vision stuck in some kind of very bizarre alternate reality, where they’re a husband and wife in a 1950s sitcom. It’s so weird, and so cool at the same time. You’ve got to watch it. And they actually, I don’t want to give away too much. But they progress through time. And in the third episode, they end the episode playing Jimi Hendrix. So, I thought, wow, even WandaVision is listening to the CXM Experience. We’re everywhere.

Anyway, so let me get into this. This story today is a legend. It actually came up in a meeting this morning. And I think you know this, but for clarity, I do this podcast every day. And what’s great about that is that stuff happens in a day, or sometimes stuff is needed on the next day, and I can just put it together and make it happen. And so, this is this is something happened today. I was on a telephone call with a very large telco in the UK. One of the world’s great companies. And they’re struggling with a few issues and some challenges. And this particular story came to mind. It is one of my favorite stories. So, I told the story, it landed really well. And I thought you know what, we’re gonna do this in the podcast today.

So, the story I want to tell you is a story about Alexander the Great. The story is the story of the Gordian knot, which is a legend about the town of Gordium. And it’s basically used as a metaphor for how you solve an intractable problem. We’re often confronted by challenges or problems that are seemingly impossible to fix. And the legend of the Gordian knot is the way to imagine your way to fix it. So, first, I’m gonna tell the story. And then I’ll fill in a few details from history. Then I’ll tell you the circumstances in which it came up. Not too detailed, obviously, there’s some confidentiality in that. But I’ll give you the general outline. And then I’ll talk a little bit about how you can use this in your day-to-day business life as well.

So, the people who populated the town of Gordium were called the Phrygians, and the Phrygians didn’t have a king. But an oracle at Telmessos, which is the ancient capital of Lycia, obviously, decreed that the next person to enter the city driving an ox cart, should become their king. So, a peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox cart, and it was obviously immediately declared king. And so out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, who’s similar to Zeus, but in the Greek god universe, and then built a knot to hold this oxcart to a post.

That knot was made… it was an intricate knot made of cornel bark. And it was described by Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus as being “several knots, all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.” And so, this is the beginning of the story. Person comes into town, becomes a king. Oxcart is tied off to a post and then off you go. So, the oxcart stood in a place of honor for many, many years. And by the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great — he was Alexander, at the time. But Alexander the Great arrived. And at this point in time Phrygia was just a province of the Persian Empire. And an oracle declared that anybody who could unravel the elaborate knots of this Gordian knot was destined to become the ruler of all Asia.

And so Alexander comes up to it. And this is a super, super, nearly-impossible to untie knot. There’s some legend about how the knot was made. Think of it as something where there was a knot cipher that was guarded by the priests and priestesses. And it symbolizes the idea that when something’s knotted into a cipher, it can be passed on through generations, and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia. So, this is a big deal knot. It’s like a really big deal Knot. Because it’s like a secret knot, it’s like a cipher. Only the priests and priestesses know how to undo it. This is a hard knot. But a little bit like the Sword in the Stone… it’s got a very similar quality to the Sword in the Stone legend, which we can cover another time if you’re not familiar with that. The idea was that the person who could untie this knot would become ruler of all Asia.

So Alexander the Great came and started looking at it, start playing with it, touching it, looking at it. He surveyed it, went around it. And there were a number of people who had tried, unsuccessfully, to untie the knot, and they failed. And so, Alexander’s looking at it, and looking at it. And there are two tellings to the legend. I’ll give you the one I like the most. And he’s looking at it, and he’s examining this knot. Really, really wants to figure it out, right? He’s looking at this Gordian knot.

A little bit of a look comes across his face. I think I got this. I think I got this, I think I know what I’m gonna do. Everyone’s looking at him. You know, has he figured it out? I mean, this is a knot cipher that only the priests and priestesses have. He comes a little bit closer to it. Then he pulls out his sword. And so Alexander the Great used the Roman short sword. It was actually one of the really interesting things that made the Romans really effective as an army is their swords are very short. They’re good for thrusting, which is all you needed to disable your enemy. And they could be drawn in close quarters, and they could fight in close quarters more easily and from behind their shields. So it was that kind of sword, versus the very long swords that a lot of cultures had, that got some effectiveness to them as well, but require more swinging room.

And he draws out his short sword, approaches the knot, raises the sword above his head, and in in one single slice — this four-century old knot — he just cuts it in half. And he turns around, and he’s like, I untied the knot. I’m sure he said it not quite that way, probably, but something like that. And so the legend of the Gordian knot, and what I like about it, is that, despite all this stuff that builds up around it, is that the intractable problem, which is this knot that can’t be untied… you could have sat there and spent several hours trying to figure out how to untie it, probably unsuccessfully. Or you can just take a sword and cut the damn thing in half.

And where this came up in the meeting today, just to draw this to martech and marketing, is this particular group was showing us their martech stack. It was a very complex stack with a lot of stuff in it. And nobody was happy about it. No one is like, we love our complex stack that almost never works. Everyone is like, this is a really big problem. We’ve got to figure out how to fix it. But we’re running systems on and it’s hard to fix. And I told them the legend of the Gordian knot. And then I said, maybe what you want to do here is, as opposed to trying to untie this knot that you’ve made, just use a sword, cut in half and create something different and alongside. Basically, build a new system on Sprinklr that would drive a conversational commerce motion, and bypass all the old systems that they have, and allow them to start selling more today and start driving better customer experiences. And we’ll see where we go with it. But it landed pretty well.

And I do think that in our lives, we are often confronted with Gordian knots all the time. Gordian knots exists all over the place. There’s intractable problems and challenges in family, and friends, and relationships. In our business lives and our personal lives, we’re constantly confronted by them. And often the way to deal with it is just to take out the sword and just chop it in half. You know, sometimes moving is an effective way of doing that. Moving, in some ways, is like cutting the Gordian knot. You pack all your stuff up in boxes and unpack what you need when you need it. And you’ve cleaned your home and you’ve organized yourself all in one fell swoop. That’s a little bit of a cutting of the Gordian knot.

As you think about your own life, and you think about the challenges that you’re having, think about where do you have Gordian knots in your life? And can you just pull your sword out and chop it in half? Could it be that easy? And often, the way to do that is to build something alongside that ignores it. One last analogy and one last example, which is: phone systems are a really good example of this. If you think about the North American phone system, it was built out of copper laid down in the 40s and 50s. Great phone system, not criticizing it, but super complex, a lot of costs. And there’s a massive switch system. What’s been interesting is there are a number of countries around the world that never got to that stage. They never got to lay copper. They never built switched phone systems. They actually leapfrogged that and went straight to cellular, and in some cases have much more sophisticated cellular systems and sophisticated populations in terms of their use of cellular, and the use of mobile phones. And that’s because they essentially cut the Gordian knot, as opposed to building a whole complex structure there. They just pulled their sword out, cut that and went straight to the new modern system.

And that, I think, for me is a great example of how to drive innovation and how to create change. So, for the CXM Experience… “whoosh.” (That’s the sword falling). I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And I’ll see you next time.

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