The Parable of the Sugar Blocks

Doug Samuelson

“Well, you sure blew that opportunity,” Ted’s friend George growled over the drinks they were sharing following a big meeting George had arranged. “That VP I wanted you to meet came to me afterward and asked me, ‘Who was that weird guy with the off-the-wall question?’ What did you ask him, anyway?”

Ted shrugged. “The group of us had been talking about defense force structure and doctrine. As we were leaving, I asked him whether he thought we’re getting any closer to knowing how to beat the current enemy without making new ones. He looked at me as if I’d been spouting Greek poetry – or gibberish. Now I guess I know what that look meant.”

“That was an off-the-wall question!” George exclaimed. “What good did you think asking that would do?”

“Let me tell you a story,” Ted smiled. “Many years ago, very early in my career, before I got my master’s degree in operations research, I was working as a statistician in a policy shop downtown. One day I met a friend for lunch nearby. She had just started at this high-powered think tank nearby, and she wanted to bring a few of her new colleagues along. That was fine with me.

“The colleagues were social and industrial psychologists, or something like that, and they chattered away about different scaling methods and sampling corrections and other methodological issues. They brushed aside my questions about what they were actually trying to measure and how they would know whether they had gotten it right. The service in the restaurant was slow. My attention wandered. It happened that this restaurant had a little bowl of maybe three dozen sugar blocks, about half an inch by half an inch by an inch, individually wrapped in paper – this gives you an idea of how long ago this was. I started investigating what kinds of little structures I could build out of those sugar blocks. Not being rude, still looking at the other people and smiling and nodding at the conversation once in a while, I obviously was not giving it my full attention.

“My lady friend phoned me that evening,” Ted continued, “and did she give me an earful! It seems I had mortally embarrassed her in front of her friends, all of whom wanted to know what kind of weird dork builds little structures out of sugar blocks in a restaurant, and why she would associate with someone like that. Trouble!

“I thought it over for just a moment,” Ted went on, “and then I told her, ‘Well, I have two things to say about that. First of all, if I ever get pompous and self-important enough to think it’s beneath my dignity to build little structures out of the sugar blocks in a restaurant, I hope I’ll have at least one good enough friend left to smack me one and restore my perspective. And second, no matter what degrees those people have and what positions they hold, they’re not scientists and they never will be. The essential quality of a scientist is playful curiosity, and they don’t even recognize that quality when they see it!’ ”

“Whoa,” George marveled. “And then what happened?”

“After a brief stunned silence,” Ted recounted, “she said that, on further consideration, she thought I was right.”

“OK, interesting,” George nodded. “So you dodged the bullet that time. But what does that have to do with annoying the prospective employer I got you in to see?”

“Just this,” Ted replied. “No matter what rank he held – didn’t you say he was a three-star? – and what research and innovation he was responsible for, more likely by funding it than by coming up with the ideas, the guy thinks like a dinosaur. For your information and his, that ‘off-the-wall’ idea about defeating the current enemy without making new ones was a direct quote from the keynote speech a Marine one-star gave at a workshop on asymmetric warfare I attended a few years ago. His illustration of what this means in practice was, ‘If we break down a guy’s door and drag him away and find out we got the wrong guy, we need to be back the next day with him in good condition, an apology and a new door.’ Doesn’t get much clearer and on-point than that, does it?

“So,” Ted concluded, “actually my inquiry was a very efficient, quick way to settle a key question. You know I’m an unorthodox thinker – one of my key strengths, according to people who like it, and one of my key drawbacks, in the view of people who don’t like it. How broad is the thinking of this VP of yours, and how does he react to a challenging question from outside his way of thinking? If he’s been listening to recently returned combat commanders from the other services, how is it that this question is so unfamiliar? And even more important, you’ll notice he did not ask me what I meant, nor did he ask you to find out. He just dismissed the unfamiliar point of view and the person who had presented it.

“What more information do I need in order to deduce that I don’t want to work for this guy?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va. He recently joined Group W, Inc., in Merrifield and Triangle, Va.

Author’s note:
“Group W” is a play on a reference from Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” – it’s the Army induction center’s term for people who appear to be mentally unfit for the military. The company’s clients, almost all military, value unorthodox questions and opinions. They and I think that I will fit well into their culture. Here’s hoping …