You are just guessing; stop it!

By Taylor Milner

You have probably found yourself in this meeting before - the emergency, all-hands-on-deck sit in scheduled to solve the new, big problem.  It could be about people, customers, sales, a technical or quality issue--it doesn’t matter.  Your group spends the first 10 minutes excitedly proposing solutions to the problem.  These solutions are great, creative ideas that have sprung to mind.  This energy feeds on itself, with more ideas developing out of those already proposed.  The next 10 minutes are then spent advocating for proposed solutions and proposing even more that come to mind.  It is wonderfully creative brainstorming!

The only problem is that it usually does not get you any closer to solving the problem.  It just creates a long list of potential solutions that have to be explored. Hopefully the meeting is only scheduled for 30 minutes but more than likely you will be guessing for hours.

What else can you do, though?  This is how we have been taught to solve problems - get the right people in the room and brainstorm ideas.  You can try to add some structure to the process by using “5 Why’s” or a Fishbone diagram.  You can ask people to go get some data.  You can use a points system that prioritizes solutions based on likelihood of success and investment required.

For the simple problems, the ones with only a couple of solutions, these strategies work.  This is what your mechanic does when you bring your car into the shop and complain about a rattle.  However this does not work when the problems get hard, and it  certainly does not work when the problems get really hard. (This is why your mechanic sometimes fails.)

In your meeting, most people will be using some combination of experience, smarts, and the information immediately at hand to try and determine the root cause and appropriate solution.  But in the end, they are just guessing.

For the last 20 years we have worked on hard problems and observed great problem solvers in action.  To let you in on a little secret, they do not guess.  In fact, they exhibit nine different behaviors that are critical to solving the hard problems.  For now we will focus on the first behavior: resisting the urge to guess.

The next time you find yourself in that meeting where everyone around you is just guessing at a solution, what do you do?  Here are a couple things to try:

Get it out of your system

We love to guess!  Embrace it; this is what most of us are taught to do and what most organizations inadvertently reward.  So rather than trying to immediately get your team to stop guessing, let them do it. Get them to write their guesses down so you have a record of them and even encourage them to come up with as many ideas as they can think of.

Then, ask the group  to reflect on what they are doing.  I once had a group respond by saying, “We are just wildly speculating!”  It was cathartic for them to accept that all they had been doing was guessing.  I didn’t even have to prompt them.

Once the guesses are out of everyone’s system and the group recognizes what they have been doing, you can move on to gaining a deeper understanding of the problem at hand so that its true root cause can be determined.

Act like a kid

I love my kids but there are some moments, when they are asking endless questions, that can be really annoying. When it comes to solving hard problems, try to harness a child’s ability to persistently ask questions.

Ask all the questions you can think of that will tell you more about the problem you are trying to solve.  In a group setting this activity can spawn the same energy as guessing at solutions, but it is far more useful. There are even some fun games you can play where if people guess a solution rather than ask a question, they are no longer allowed to verbally ask questions until they have written them down.   

One caution: beware of the solution-confirming question.  Some questions are solutions masquerading as questions.  These are usually less exploratory and more about confirming an outcome. Questions that begin with What, Where, When, Which and How are usually value-adding.

Add some basic structure to the conversation

Great problem solvers usually follow some kind of structured process, whether they know they are doing it or not. Once you have gotten your guesses out of your system, try the following steps that usually start most structured processes:

Define the problem.  What problem are you really trying to solve?  Be specific here: how do you detect when you have the problem and when you don’t? If you can define the problem in a measurable way (think time, temperature, location, etc) that is a good sign that you understand what the problem really is.

Gather details and data.  If you have played the question game above, you should have plenty of questions to answer about the problem such as  when, where, and how it occurs.  Lots of medium difficulty problems can be solved just by gathering the problem details and defining the pattern of failure well.

Look really closely at the failure when it is happening.  There is so much to be learned from an actual failure when you look at it from a point of curiosity and asking, “I wonder what happened here?” Most of us look at failures with an eye to the solution we have already guessed. Instead, great problem solvers look at failures like they stumbled over them in the woods while on a walk - with curiosity and interest.

In that next meeting...

Simple problems can be solved with guessing, hard problems cannot.  The next time you find yourself guessing after the solution to a hard problem, embrace it, get those guesses out, and then stop guessing!

Curious to learn more about how to Stop Guessing and the other behaviors of great problem solvers? Check out the book written by our CEO, Nat Greene, aptly titled Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers, out soon from Berrett-Koehler press.  I have worked with Nat Greene for almost 20 years.  He helped coach me on my problem solving early in my career and throughout the years he has been incredibly influential in improving my problem solving abilities...especially making sure I'm not just guessing.

In your experience solving problems, you've already developed some of the behaviors you need to succeed. Learn which problem solving behaviors you bring to the table in your business with our quiz, 


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