The 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.
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.
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 x
it. We might jot these down and quickly get to work.
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 x 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.
Guessing is a natural brain function. In our evolutionary his- tory, 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 thou- sands of years ago.
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
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.”
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.
In business we also naturally default to guessing.
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