“Gut instinct” rarely works. Sure, people get lucky, especially in a subject area where they have experience and knowledge. But, the rest of us, the regular ones, often guess wrong. We all know famous industry leaders, especially hi-tech weenies, who have risen to the top of their game by making quick decisions, and they repeat their stories of glory on CNBC on late-night biographies. In reality, many of them just got lucky. Other people who are as intelligent or more intelligent did not have such illustrious careers, and it is not because they’re not good, but because they didn’t make lucky guesses. It’s sad when you meet someone who’s gifted, intelligent and hard-working who has not had the success they deserve because they keep accepting what fate has in store for them. I’m trying to get them to stop guessing and start developing problem-solving and decision-making skills.
If you want to stop guessing, start learning all you can about two disciplines: problem-solving and structured decision-making. What is the difference between decision-making and problem-solving? Problem-solving involves finding a way to change a process or relationship in order to return to a satisfactory steady-state. For example, we problem solve around a machine that is malfunctioning in order to get it back to running smoothly. The goal is to get past something and return to normal. Maybe we want to get past an issue in a marriage and return to a steady-state of marital bliss. In contrast, decision-making involves anticipating the future, and making choices that will have favorable odds to bring about the best future. (Hint: both work best when you have a little fun with them.)
When problem-solving, spend time researching the problem and digging around just as a hobbyist who is passionate about the subject area. People with intellectual curiosity make the best problem solvers. Want to solve a problem? — be interested! That’s worth repeating. Be interested! Think about this scenario: a guy who is into model railroading has a great train set in his basement, but there’s a problem – when certain engines go around a tight corner, they lose power. How should he solve the problem? First, I suggest that he avoid guessing and avoid thinking that it is anything related to anything that has happened before. Instead, he’s a hobbyist and he should think like a hobbyist, in other words he should have fun and treat the problem as an opportunity to learn. He should dig around, look at the track via a magnifying glass, test the voltage on the track, or try different engines. Without thinking of what the answer is, eventually it will come to him. In technical terms, what he’s doing is a “variable analysis”, but he’s also having fun with his variable analysis and the fun makes a difference. Many variables could cause the problem – and they could be totally different than the “last time” or previous problem. Maybe that section of track is dirty because his son put something on it – like a greasy teddy bear – when our hero was not there, maybe the curve is to tight and the inside wheels lose contact with the rails, maybe the curve puts torque on the train and makes it harder to pull,… who knows? Don’t guess. Investigate. Dig into it. Have fun. And do not guess.
The end-state for this HO train hobbyist (based on a true story from someone I know) is that he finds an unexplained layer of grease on the track – due to his youngest son and a wild sleep-over party involving silly sling putty and a pillow fight. He cleaned the tracks, and then all engines ran the same – not what you would think.
Sometimes, you problem-solve in the short term, to set yourself up to make a decision in the long-term. For example, in a marital spat, you solve the short-term problem, and then decide together what you want to do together or apart in the long-term.
When decision-making, use a structured process. The military, primarily the United States Army, has evolved a process called the Military Decision Making Process. It’s a complex 8-step process with a lot of staff functions in support. General Patton used this process to win the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Another decision-making process is known as a decision matrix. You don’t have to use such complicated tools, but you should use a pencil and paper to try to quantify what the decision is, why you are making it, and the pluses and minuses of each choice. The military outlines what it calls “courses of action” as the potential choices. And then the military uses war gaming to play-out what might happen at each stage during each course of action. At the end, we military gentlemen quantify each course of action and we make a decision, a complicated process, which I will add more detail to in further writings.
If luck goes against you, do not take it personally and retreat to your planning table, gather allies, seek input and develop your next plan. Do not take bad luck as a personal insult. If luck flies against you, blame it on the gods, and start re-planning. It ain’t over until you’re in the grave and maybe not even then.
In summary, take control of your life and stop relying on luck in many aspects of your life: what car to buy, what college to go to, who to marry, where to live, what dog to get, etc… Stop guessing and start living a life according to your problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Mark O’Neill serves in the Army Reserve as an Officer in Information Operations and Intelligence. He has served in Korea, Honduras, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He authored two fiction novels, Slave to the Lender and Bound to Get Burned. He is currently writing a book on the Civilian Decision-Making Process that features deep analysis of General Patton’s use of the military decision-making process in comparison to present-day civilian problems. He lives in Helena, Montana.
He can be reached at mro.producer at gmail dot com