Excerpt: Some Sound Advice—Stop Guessing Already

NatGreeneThe following is an excerpt from Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers by Nat Greene, cofounder and CEO of Stroud International. The book is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2017. All rights are reserved. 

CHAPTER 1: Stop Guessing 

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.  —Sherlock Holmes, in Sign of the Four

Unlike Mr. Holmes, the rest of us guess sometimes. When we face something that’s broken or any problem in our lives, our frontal cortex lights up with one or dozens of ideas of what might be wrong and how to fix it. We might jot these down and quickly get to work.

Guessing is a natural brain function. In our evolutionary history, humans had to quickly make decisions with very limited information. We had problems such as “What tool should I use to deal with this saber-toothed tiger trying to separate me from my larynx?” Spending time studying your problem and finding the root cause behind your unfortunate conundrum was a behavior that natural selection quickly pruned from our family trees thousands of years ago.

And that natural tendency to guess is reinforced throughout our lives. In school, we are rewarded by teachers for being the first to raise our hands with a guess to the answer of a question. In order to promote self-esteem, teachers reward wrong answers, too: “good guess!” We’re discouraged from simply saying, “I don’t know.”

In business we also naturally default to guessing. We’re encouraged by others who crave quick action when problems arise—regardless of the quality. Spending hours staring at data or a broken machine can be seen as slow or lazy, whereas the employee that “rolls up their sleeves” and immediately tries something is seen as heroic.

I don’t know when I first came across this issue, but the first example I can recall was while I was in a factory in Georgia. A piece of equipment had broken down, stopping the production line. A mechanic spent 8 hours changing a half-dozen parts until he got it back up and running. After production was back online, he told a story that has become very familiar to me: “I ripped it open and changed out this part, but that didn’t fix it. And I also had to change this other part, and then…” He was celebrated by the leadership team for his tenacity and effort, but nobody asked whether he could have brought the plant online much faster by actually investigating what the root cause was. And it seems highly unlikely that four or five parts all failed at once.

This isn’t problem-solving. It’s solution-guessing. Truly solving the problem involves understanding what’s wrong and why it happened, through investigation and understanding—not by spending days or weeks testing different guesses until, hopefully, one works.

WHY GUESSING FAILS 

Through both nature and nurture, guessing has become a foundation of our problem-solving skill set. And guessing helps us resolve many of our problems, but only the easy ones. When a light bulb is off, we guess that flipping the switch will turn it on. If that doesn’t work, we guess that changing the bulb will get the job done. If that doesn’t work, we typically scowl at the light as we flip the switch a few more times, and then go check the breaker-box: Aha! We flip the breaker, check the light, and bask in its glow.

What does the IT engineer at your company say when some- one calls them to tell them their computer isn’t working? “Is it plugged in?” Often asking three or four such questions solves the problem. If you suddenly start vomiting, you might guess that it has something to do with what you ate last night—and you might be right. But you might not.

Solution-guessing is a hit-or-miss technique. When a problem has two or three potential root causes, and when testing them is cheap and quick, it’s entirely appropriate. But these are easy problems. Most persistent problems in our lives aren’t easy by definition: They would not persist if they were easy to fix.

What would we do if the breaker wasn’t flipped? Or if it flipped again after a few minutes, plunging us once more into darkness? Or if our light bulb blows out repeatedly? At this point, it’s time to realize we don’t have an easy problem on our hands, and guessing won’t solve it. If you don’t have a strong problem-solving skill set, you have three options: You might keep guessing, hoping you might resolve it. You might call in an expert—in this case an electrician—and they’ll be able to use their experience to make an “educated guess,” which can move easy problems along. But when that fails, you’ll probably just cough up the money to replace whatever appears to not be working, or just live with it.

When you’re facing a problem of moderate difficulty, there may be something like 50 potential root causes. Perhaps you’ve developed intermittent sneezing fits, or your motorcycle engine occasionally stalls out in the middle of the highway, or you’re not making any progress on your diet. At work, perhaps your emissions are too close to the regulatory limit for comfort, or you suspect your sales force is not selling as hard as they can because they believe the supply chain won’t be able to meet their commitments to the customer. If you are really good at guessing—perhaps with the help of some colleagues—you might come up with 30 potential causes.

It takes time and resources to test every guess. With a long list, it’s likely you’ll waste lots of both. Worse, there’s a good chance that the root cause isn’t on your list, and you have no way of knowing until you’ve completed testing the entire thing, which might take months. What will you do next? Perhaps get a bigger group together to create a longer list of guesses?

Then you’ve got hard problems. These are the kinds of problems that might have hundreds or thousands of potential causes. The actual root cause is obscure or hidden. Shearing pipes in your water pipes might be due to invasive corrosive bacteria introduced at the local river. Your trouble sleeping might be caused by an allergy to yellow-6 dye in your macaroni. You are unlikely to be able to guess the causes to these, and trying to guess wastes a lot of time. Trying to implement some of these guesses is a shot in the dark and quickly uses up huge amounts of resources. Your brainstorming efforts will generate a list of some dozens of “possible root causes.” You’ll tirelessly grind through them and, months later, have nothing to show for it. Worse yet, with all of the random changes you have made, you’ve probably created new problems.

Brainstorming might be useful in situations where creativity is required. However, solving hard problems is not one of these. Rather than having one person guess at something, brainstorming is gathering a lot of people together to group-guess, which adds the further complication of groupthink and politics. Often this guessing is covered up with an elaborate “process” for prioritizing the guesses. You can do better than this.

At one food processing plant, they were making a product in a plastic cup with a seal on top—the sort you tear off in order to eat. Customers were getting moldy food because the seals weren’t working properly. You can imagine this was a fairly important problem for brand and food safety reasons. This corporation had invested heavily in Lean and Six Sigma techniques and had a sizeable organization dedicated to solving this problem. When we arrived, they had used a Fishbone-Diagram approach to identify over 200 potential causes and ideas to fix them (this was clearly a pretty hard problem). On the surface, they had taken a very structured approach, but in reality, it’s what I call “structured guessing.” Any time you “come up with” many things to check that could be the cause, you are guessing (see Table below).

If you get from someone a list of 10 “potential” root causes, they don’t know what’s happening. If you’ve come up with 200, you have no idea at all what’s happening. This number of ideas is far too many to search through with any reasonable effort: An individual or team is going to run out of time, resources, and energy long before they get through the list. And worse, when a team doesn’t understand a problem or the system behind it, odds are good that the true root cause isn’t even on the list. This is why guessing won’t solve these problems.

What people say to cover up guessing:

• I have a hypothesis! • I have a theory! • I’m pretty sure X is true. • We listed the most likely options. • The group voted on this one. • I’m not guessing, I’m taking action. • I was right, so it couldn’t have been a guess. • Our experience suggests…

Over a period of 4 months the food processing plant had invested one year of work and $200K trying out about one-third of these ideas, and they’d not gotten close to solving the problem. They had actually created new problems for their production line as they installed new drive-chains for the sealing equipment and made many other changes. When you make 50 changes to a production line, and only one in 10 causes a new problem, you’ve still created five new problems.

Taking an approach designed to solve hard problems took care of this issue in a few weeks, and demonstrated that the root cause wasn’t on the original list. Not a single guess was made in that entire effort. But “structured guessing” had cost the business a lot, including time and money. We’ll have a closer look at this example in Chapter 8, “Make Fact-Based Decisions,” and Chapter 9, “Stay on Target.”

THE CURSE OF LUCK

Imagine Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a serial killer with guessing. “Maybe it was the butler!” So we throw the butler in jail, but the serial killer strikes again! “Perhaps it was that shady fellow!” Six murders later we have seven more people behind bars waiting for the circus to end, but Sherlock has another hunch. “Maybe it was the chief of police!” At that point everyone rolls their eyes and tells Sherlock that he’d better not quit his day job. The practice of guessing so obviously fails in detective work that it’s almost shocking that we guess when we have important problems to solve.

But let’s say you guess, and you get lucky: You found a solution and implemented it effectively. You may or may not have spent a lot of time and resources on it. Unfortunately, some bad side effects come with this rare victory.

First, you’ve reinforced the habit of guessing in your mind or in your organization, fooled yourself into thinking it’s a good strategy and is going to work again, and made the habit harder to break in the future. Whether or not it works, it’s easy, and we find comfort in that.

Second, you haven’t developed a deeper understanding of whatever you’re trying to fix, whether it’s yourself, a process, or a machine. Instead of spending time building some knowledge of the fundamentals that you can use in the future—new problems are popping up all the time—you’ve spent your time guessing and checking. So next time there’s a problem, you’re back to square one.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, you’re not becoming a better problem-solver. While guessing might eventually get the job done for problems of moderate difficulty (although at great cost), you rob yourself or your team of critical skills development. When you get to truly hard problems, you’re going to need all of the skill you can get: If you don’t practice using the right behaviors and method to solve moderate problems then you will never master them, and you’re going to get shellacked when you try to tackle the hard ones.

GUESSING IN POPULAR PROBLEM-SOLVING METHODS

Many businesses teach their people structured methods to help them solve problems. Structure can be very helpful in certain stages of the problem-solving method, adding rigor to defining the problem and finding a pattern of failure. These are important steps beyond simple guessing or brainstorming, and they are critical to quickly solving problems of fairly easy or moderate difficulty. Many direct the problem-solver to spend significant effort studying the problem in situ, which is a significant step in the right direction away from solution-guessing at a table, in a conference room, or behind a computer. Understanding the pattern of failure allows a problem-solver to quickly eliminate some of the root causes by testing them against the pattern of failure. This can shorten the list of guesses and accelerate progress on some moderately difficult problems.

Where most of these structured methods break down is that they ultimately resort to guessing to determine what root causes may be. While they can help you solve some moderate problems, you still depend on the hope that your guessed cause is on the list you developed. Hard problems are immune to them.

For example, consider a classic problem-solving methodology such as the PackCorp Scientific Approach, which was popular in the 1960s and was one of the first to introduce rigorous problem definitions. Its method has the following nine steps:

1. Pick a problem 2. Get knowledge 3. Organize knowledge 4. Refine knowledge 5. Digest 6. Produce ideas 7. Rework ideas 8. Put ideas to work 9. Repeat the process

Steps 2 through 5 are dedicated to studying a pattern of failure, which was a breakthrough in problem-solving. But step 6, “produce ideas,” depends on insight, inspiration, and brainstorming to determine potential root causes.

When you look at most popular problem-solving approaches, you’ll find that they devolve into structured-guessing at some point. Many have steps such as, “develop possible root causes” or “deduce probable causes.” Whenever we develop some list of possible root causes, we’re guessing, even if it’s structured guessing. Some of these guessing steps are disguised as “forming hypotheses” or other seemingly scientific approaches. Many of these methods are designed to focus on simple problems quickly, where one needs to just organize guesses—Five Whys is great for this. For hard problems, though, the likelihood that you’ll include the true root cause in the list of “possible root causes” that you guess is tiny.

For sufficiently complex systems, it’s inconceivable that one or a group of human minds could comprehend it in order to effectively guess the right root cause. The Fault Tree Analysis for Boeing’s 747, which lists known potential causes of catastrophic in-flight failure, has thousands of elements. In some in-flight failures, like TWA Flight 800, the root cause is not on the prebuilt FTA—there are just too many possibilities.

The structure that comes with some of these methods can accelerate problem-solving for easy and moderate problems by pointing them in the right direction. To solve truly hard problems, you’ll need to use a method that doesn’t involve guessing in any step. There are methods that avoid guessing, but they are rare. You should find one you like. The one I’m most familiar with can be found in Chapter 10, “How to Choose Your Method,” along with some guidance on how to pick the method that’s right for you.

DEALING WITH GUESSING

Let’s be honest: You’re going to have guesses. If you’re working with a team, they’re going to have guesses. That’s fine, it’s natural. These guesses are going to bounce around and might distract you if you’re not experienced at solving hard problems.

If you or your team are distracted by guessing, I’ve found it useful not to suppress it but to write it down and get it out of your system. Put it in an envelope and ignore it. If in the end, you were right, pat yourself on the back.

This is actually a great exercise with a team: Get everyone to write down what they think the root cause to your tough problem is, and put them all in a box that you lock tight. Better yet, get them to write down what they think the root cause is, why, and what data they’d use to convince everyone else.

After the problem is solved, if your guess ended up being right, ask yourself if you had the data on hand to be able to decisively convince others to prioritize your guess over theirs. Until we actually know the root cause, there’s no effective way to prioritize different guesses, and the best guess is likely to be lost.

IT’S NATURAL TO GUESS, AND YOU CAN STOP

I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the brightest talent in the world fresh out of universities such as MIT, Cornell, Queens, Oxford, and Cambridge. These graduates are brilliant young people and most have technical degrees of some sort that make them very familiar with solving problems. They have a deep scientific foundation. They’ve synthesized complex chemicals and built robots. But when they’re faced with their first hard practical problem, I’ve found that they all guess and fail. But once they recognize how the compulsion to guess inhibits progress, they can handle hard problems with panache.

Great problem-solvers resist the temptation to guess at every stage of the process. Guessing is a tough habit to break, so get started!

NOW: STOP GUESSING

Remember, your brain is going to guess. When these guesses happen, recognize them for what they are and then let them roll off you like rain. If you’re really struggling to let them go, write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in an envelope or a box. You can look at it later to see how close you got.

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