Humans are hardwired to guess their way out of sticky situations. It’s a natural brain function that helped our ancestors survive: “Hmmm. Which tool will kill that saber-toothed tiger?” Great problem solvers, however, resist that instinctual temptation. Why? Because it’s not an effective way to solve problems.
Expert problem solvers know that investigation and study are smarter strategies for revealing root causes and resolving puzzling, important problems. Here are good five reasons that playing the guessing game is a losing proposition:
Guessing is inefficient.
Guessing might appease the need for fast action, but in the end, it’s inefficient and expensive. If a machine breaks down, it doesn’t make sense to replace all the parts until you finally find the broken one. Investigate the problem itself, find the root cause of the breakdown, and you’ll have the machine back up and running a lot more quickly.
Guessing inhibits learning.
A team that’s good at generating “ideas” is a team that doesn’t really understand the problem. Coming up with ideas in the absence of understanding will result in wasted time trying out guesses that won’t work. Guessing might spark creativity, but it isn’t solving the problem. Defining the problem well, challenging assumptions, and doing true detective work will exercise critical-thinking skills and stretch your brain. Unlike guessing, it also builds the skills needed for future problem-solving.
Guessing is a distraction.
When teams are tempted to “brainstorm” their way out of a problem, that’s just a more social form of the guessing game. Brainstorming has its place where creativity is required, but solving hard problems is not one of them. The dangers of brainstorming are real: A slide into group think, people getting attached to their own “ideas,” and the most powerful person in the room making the decisions about which guess to test. If you need to get guessing out of your system, write all the guesses down to play “who guessed right” later, after the problem has been solved through real work.
Guessing has serious side effects.
It could happen—a lucky guess that works. Good? Maybe, but the scenario is likely to come with unfortunate side effects. The first is that you’ve experienced positive reinforcement for a negative habit. The second is your lucky guess means you didn’t develop a deeper understanding of the problem or its root cause, which leaves you at a disadvantage the next time a problem crops up. Finally, you’ve passed up the opportunity to become a better problem solver.
Guessing can make things worse.
For challenging problems, the root cause is often well hidden, among hundreds of potential causes. Not only does guessing eat up valuable resources and waste time, it won’t get at the heart of the problem. Scattered attempts to try out solutions you guessed have a high probability of creating new problems, making things worse in the moment or in the future.
Even the best and the brightest resort to guessing from time to time. Awareness is key to stopping the guessing game. When your brain goes for the guess, recognize it and redirect your energy. Focus on learning about the problem, learn how your process works, and methodically drive to root cause, and you’ll soon be on your way to solving the stickiest problems with panache.
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