Intrepid problem solvers,
Today you are going to learn the biggest thing holding you back from solving hard problems in your life.
Hard problems are everywhere: they lurk, unsolved, in all facets of our lives. They make us suffer in ways we recognize and also in ways we have blocked out.
When we fail to solve these hard problems, we often learn to work around them, throw money and resources at them, or we simply just learn to live with them. But they can be solved and will benefit our lives, our work, and our communities. To solve these hard problems, we need to change our behaviors. In over 20 years of solving hard problems and coaching great problem solvers, I have found that these greats exhibit 9 behaviors, and over the next nine days, you will learn what these behaviors are.
Why We Guess
When we face a problem or something that is broken, our frontal cortex lights up with one or dozens of ideas of what might be wrong and how to fix it. We jot these down and quickly get to work, and this is guessing.
Guessing is natural and is reinforced throughout our lives. At work, we often face pressure to take action right away. We like guessing because it is quick and works for easy problems, but it fails to help you solve the harder problems. Hard problems have hundreds or thousands of potential root causes, and you are unlikely to guess the right one.
“I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.” —Sherlock Holmes in Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
What Guessing Looks Like
Anytime you “come up with” a potential cause or solution that you not certain of, you are guessing. Hypothesizing, theorizing, brainstorming, listing likely options, voting, trying things out—these are all guessing.
Some problem solving methodologies even embrace guessing. If you ever see a method that tells you to come up with “possible root causes” or something similar, this is a red flag.
Why Guessing Hurts
Guessing at hard problems has a number of drawbacks.
First, it takes time and resources to test every guess. With a long list, it is likely you will waste a lot of both. Worse, there is a good chance that the root cause isn’t on your list, and you have no way of knowing until you have tested everything else, which could take months. What will you do next? Perhaps get a bigger group together to create a longer list of guesses?
Second, guessing can make things worse. When you attempt to implement a solution but don’t really understand the root cause of your problem, you might just cause new problems as you muck around. Consider medieval medicine: whether it was the use of leeches, arsenic, or any other bizarre concoction, doctors often made their patients sicker because they were simply guessing how they could make them better.
Finally, guessing robs you of the ability to learn about the system you are working on and improve your problem solving capabilities. If you get lucky and your guess works, you are simply reinforcing the idea that it is going to help you next time rather than building valuable skills.
How to Deal with Guessing
Let’s be honest: you are going to guess, and if you are working with a team, they’re going to have guesses, too. That’s fine—it’s natural. These guesses are going to bounce around and might distract you if you are not experienced solving hard problems.
If you or your team seem distracted by guessing, I have found it useful not to suppress it but to write your guesses down and get them out of your system. Put them in an envelope and ignore them. If in the end, you were right, pat yourself on the back.
When guesses happen, recognize them for what they are and then let them roll off you like water.
Tomorrow you will learn one of the most important behaviors you can use to replace your guessing habit: smelling the problem.
Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe, which is a great book to get started thinking about how to solve some simpler problems.
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