Here is an excerpt from an article written by Charles Conn and Robert McLean for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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1. Be ever-curious
As any parent knows, four-year-olds are unceasing askers. Think of the never-ending “whys” that make little children so delightful—and relentless. For the very young, everything is new and wildly uncertain. But they’re on a mission of discovery, and they’re determined to figure things out. And they’re good at it! That high-energy inquisitiveness is why we have high shelves and childproof bottles.
When you face radical uncertainty, remember your four-year-old or channel the four-year-old within you. Relentlessly ask, “Why is this so?” Unfortunately, somewhere between preschool and the boardroom, we tend to stop asking. Our brains make sense of massive numbers of data points by imposing patterns that have worked for us and other humans in the past. That’s why a simple technique, worth employing at the beginning of problem solving, is simply to pause and ask why conditions or assumptions are so until you arrive at the root of the problem.
Natural human biases in decision making, including confirmation, availability, and anchoring biases, often cause us to shut down the range of solutions too early. Better—and more creative—solutions come from being curious about the broader range of potential answers.
One simple suggestion from author and economist Caroline Webb to generate more curiosity in team problem solving is to put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This small artifice is surprisingly powerful: it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence. We also like thesis/antithesis, or red team/blue team, sessions, in which you divide a group into opposing teams that argue against the early answers—typically, more traditional conclusions that are more likely to come from a conventional pattern. Why is this solution better? Why not that one? We’ve found that better results come from embracing uncertainty. Curiosity is the engine of creativity.
We have to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. Unfortunately, we have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians.
2. Tolerate ambiguity—and stay humble!
When we think of problem solvers, many of us tend to picture a poised and brilliant engineer. We may imagine a mastermind who knows what she’s doing and approaches a problem with purpose. The reality, though, is that most good problem solving has a lot of trial and error; it’s more like the apparent randomness of rugby than the precision of linear programming. We form hypotheses, porpoise into the data, and then surface and refine (or throw out) our initial guess at the answer. This above all requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity—and a gambler’s sense of probabilities.
The real world is highly uncertain. Reality unfolds as the complex product of stochastic events and human reactions. The impact of COVID-19 is but one example: we address the health and economic effects of the disease, and their complex interactions, with almost no prior knowledge. We have to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. Unfortunately, we have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians. Guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong. That’s why one of the keys to operating in uncertain environments is epistemic humility, which Erik Angner defines as “the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence.”
For example, when the Australian research body Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which owned a core patent on the wireless internet protocol, sought royalties from major companies, it was initially rebuffed. The CSIRO bet that it could go to court to protect its intellectual property because it estimated that it needed only 10 percent odds of success for this to be a good wager, given the legal costs and likely payoff. It improved its odds by picking the weakest of the IP violators and selecting a legal jurisdiction that favored plaintiffs. This probabilistic thinking paid off and eventually led to settlements to CSIRO exceeding $500 million. A tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to play the odds helped the organization feel its way to a good solution path.
To embrace imperfectionism with epistemic humility, start by challenging solutions that imply certainty. You can do that in the nicest way by asking questions such as “What would we have to believe for this to be true?” This brings to the surface implicit assumptions about probabilities and makes it easier to assess alternatives. When uncertainty is high, see if you can make small moves or acquire information at a reasonable cost to edge out into a solution set. Perfect knowledge is in short supply, particularly for complex business and societal problems. Embracing imperfection can lead to more effective problem solving. It’s practically a must in situations of high uncertainty, such as the beginning of a problem-solving process or during an emergency.
Good problem solving typically involves designing experiments to reduce key uncertainties. Each move provides additional information and builds capabilities.
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