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Stop Guessing

By Nat Greene Berrett-Koehler, 142 pages, $27.95

In solving problems, we tend to fall back on experience. We might brainstorm. We might seek out consultants or advisers – sometimes many of them – or we might rely on intuition.

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But Nat Greene, a consultant who tackles challenging technical problems around the world, says that all amounts to guesswork. We are essentially going with hunches rather than hard-nosed research that digs into the root causes. And while our guesswork gambits can work with the simple and familiar problems we often face, they will fail when applied to complex problems.

A simple problem might have a few possible causes. A more complex problem could have 20, or 200, or 2,000. When a machine breaks down, usually there are some obvious possibilities to check. But when those aren't the issue – a time when Mr. Greene is often called in – it requires careful observation and step-by-step problem-solving to unearth the source. Guessing doesn't help.

The first step is to study the problem in detail – or, as he likes to say, smell it. Focus on the pattern of failure. "Where possible, understanding where the problem does and doesn't happen, when the problem started, and how often the problem occurs will generate critical insights for the problem-solving effort," he writes in Stop Guessing.

What does the problem look like? If you look closely, is it consistently the same? When did you first see the problem? What pattern do you notice if you look at the problem over time? Where might you expect to see the same problem, but don't? He's like Sherlock Holmes, studying, observing and piecing things together. He never guesses.

Embrace your ignorance. Mr. Greene says in many cases we know 90 per cent of what is required to solve the problem, so we tend to start from that base of knowledge. "People are asking you to solve the problem because of what you know, rather than what you don't. However, it is the last 10 per cent that lies between you and an elegant solution," he writes. So don't be afraid of your ignorance – or displaying it to others. Keep learning.

Define the problem in an accurate and precise way. With technical problems he looks for a measurable variable. He cites as an example a friend who tells you he wants to be in better shape. Great goal, but very fuzzy. Is he measuring better shape by losing weight and reducing body mass or increasing strength and muscle mass? Or something else?

Dig into the fundamentals of the problem, learning how things work at a basic level. Figure out what variables control the primary variable you are intent on improving.

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Don't rely on experts, who may feel pressed to give rapid answers and often face conflicts, such as the supplier who opts automatically for a newer model of your machine. And their knowledge can be a curse, not a blessing, if it leaves them blinkered, unable to handle unusual problems.

That doesn't mean avoiding experts altogether, but knowing how to use them. Get their help understanding how things work. Ask them where in the process to look to find the information you need. Recruit their help removing roadblocks. But stay in control.

He suggests choosing a problem-solving method that doesn't rely on guessing, as you are trying to determine the root causes – which means eliminating most of the common ones, unfortunately – and instead pick one that starts by focusing on the problem. He also warns methods that mostly concentrate on choosing the right people or getting buy-in are useful for political problems but not technical ones.

He says the good news is that that still leaves you with a number of possible techniques and briefly shares his favourite form of variable analysis, which leads you step-by-step into understanding what you are dealing with until the source of the problem is revealed. Readers might want more tools of that sort but it is a brisk book that instead concentrates on illuminating a common trap in our problem analyses and urges you to stop guessing.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

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