I love this story from Richard Feynman about how he understood how to best manage a group of young, smart, driven engineers—tell them the problem they are trying to solve and then stay out of the way.
The real trouble was that no one had ever told these fellows anything. The Army had selected them from all over the country for a thing called Special Engineer Detachment—clever boys from high school who had engineering ability. They sent them up to Los Alamos. They put them in barracks. And they would tell them nothing.
Then they came to work, and what they had to do was work on IBM machines—punching holes, numbers that they didn't understand. Nobody told them what it was. The thing was going very slowly. I said that the first thing there has to be is that these technical guys know what we're doing. Oppenheimer went and talked to the security and got special permission so I could give a nice lecture about what we were doing, and they were all excited: “We're fighting a war! We see what it is!” They knew what the numbers meant. If the pressure came out higher, that meant there was more energy released, and so on and so on. They knew what they were doing.
Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn't need supervising in the night; they didn't need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs that we used—and so forth.
So my boys really came through, and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was, that's all. As a result, although it took them nine months to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months, which is nearly ten times as fast.
But one of the secret ways we did our problems was this: The problems consisted of a bunch of cards that had to go through a cycle. First add, then multiply and so it went through the cycle of machines in this room, slowly, as it went around and around. So we figured a way to put a different colored set of cards through a cycle too, but out of phase. We'd do two or three problems at a time.
But this got us into another problem. Near the end of the war for instance, just before we had to make a test in Albuquerque, the question was: How much would be released? We had been calculating the release from various designs, but we hadn't computed for the specific design that was ultimately used. So Bob Christie came down and said, “We would like the results for how this thing is going to work in one month”—or some very short time, like three weeks.
I said, “It's impossible.”
He said, “Look, you're putting out nearly two problems a month. It takes only two weeks per problem, or three weeks per problem.”
I said, “I know. It really takes much longer to do the problem, but we're doing them in parallel. As they go through, it takes a long time and there's no way to make it go around faster.”
So he went out, and I began to think. Is there a way to make it go around faster? What if we did nothing else on the machine, so there was nothing else interfering? I put a challenge to the boys on the blackboard—CAN WE DO IT? They all start yelling, “Yes, we'll work double shifts, we'll work overtime,”—all this kind of thing. “We'll try it. We'll try it!”
And so the rule was: All other problems out. Only one problem and just concentrate on this one. So they started to work.
My wife died in Albuquerque, and I had to go down. I borrowed Fuchs' car. He was a friend of mine in the dormitory. He had an automobile. He was using the automobile to take the secrets away, you know, down to Santa Fe. He was the spy. I didn't know that. I borrowed his car to go to Albuquerque. The damn thing got three flat tires on the way. I came back from there, and I went into the room, because I was supposed to be supervising everything, but I couldn't do it for three days.
It was in this mess. There's white cards, there's blue cards, there's yellow cards, and I start to say, “You're not supposed to do more than one problem—only one problem!” They said, “Get out, get out, get out. Wait—and we'll explain everything.”
So I waited, and what happened was this. As the cards went through, sometimes the machine made a mistake, or they put a wrong number in. What we used to have to do when that happened was to go back and do it over again. But they noticed that a mistake made at some point in one cycle only affects the nearby numbers, the next cycle affects the nearby numbers, and so on. It works its way through the pack of cards. If you have 50 cards and you make a mistake at card number 39, it affects 37, 38, and 39. The next, card 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40. The next time it spreads like a disease.
So they found an error back a way, and they got an idea. They would only compute a small deck of 10 cards around the error. And because 10 cards could be put through the machine faster than the deck of 50 cards, they would go rapidly through with this other deck while they continued with the 50 cards with the disease spreading. But the other thing was computing faster, and they would seal it all up and correct it. OK? Very clever.
That was the way those guys worked, really hard, very clever, to get speed. There was no other way. If they had to stop to try to fix it, we'd have lost time. We couldn't have got it. That was what they were doing.
Of course, you know what happened while they were doing that. They found an error in the blue deck. And so they had a yellow deck with a little fewer cards; it was going around faster than the blue deck. Just when they are going crazy—because after they get this straightened out, they have to fix the white deck—the boss comes walking in.
“Leave us alone,” they say. So I left them alone and everything came out. We solved the problem in time and that's the way it was.