methodology such as the PackCorp Scientific Ap-
proach, which was popular in the 1960s and was one of
the first to introduce rigorous problem definitions. Its
method has the following nine steps:
Pick a problem
Put ideas to work
Repeat the process
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 seem 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.
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
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.
When you look at most popular problem-solving
approaches, you’ll find that they devolve into struc-tured-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 hypoth-eses” 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
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
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.
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.
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 pre-built FTA—there are just too many possibilities.
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 ail. But once they recognize how the compulsion to guess inhibits progress, they can handle
hard problems with panache.
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
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
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.
Remember, your brain is going to guess. When these
guesses hap- pen, 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.