Leadership Dilemmas:  The Seduction of correctly solving the wrong problem. 

There was a university study conducted a few years ago on mice, rats, and hamsters.  The study was intended, of course, to see if we could learn something that we could apply to humans.  As you know, most rats, mice and hamsters will get into a cage and go a gazillion miles an hour in the wheel for a very long time.  The study showed, however, that there is a very small percentage of these animals (a percentage in the low single digits) that will not do that.  They labeled it “the laziness gene.”  It seems that some of these creatures will get in the cage, shred the paper on the bottom, put the shreds in the wheel, make a nest, crawl in and take a nap.  A laziness gene, huh?  My question to you is “which ones do you respect more?”  This seems pretty innovative to me.  My take on it is, if you’re getting nowhere, take a nap.

One of the ways we put in tremendous effort and get nowhere is by committing what is called a “type-three error.”–a concept invented by Howard Raiffa at the Harvard Negotiation Project.  The label is a bit tongue in cheek as he pokes fun at statistics, but it is defined as “solving the wrong problem correctly.”  He described it further as: “…trying to solve old and new problems with the assumptions, mindsets, and institutions of the past.”   We do this all the time.  Sometimes it’s harmless.  But sometimes it can be extremely costly in money, resources, good will, in life itself. Later, Ian Mitroff published significant work on the concept, most intensely in his book, Dirty Rotten Strategies.  Ian is afraid that we are institutionalizing some of these type-three errors.     

It’s a dangerous form of group-think and can happen very innocently and with all good intentions.  The causes are a bit surprising.  Some of them have to do with, believe it or not, too much expertise in the same room.  Several studies on creativity have shown that the most innovative minds are young, inexperienced, and uneducated.  This might argue that, although we think we are accumulating wisdom, what we may be accumulated over time, is just baggage and it tends to narrow our perspective.  It’s what Mitroff calls a “bounded view.”  Too many people in a group who have the same history and education, or an organizational culture that is too strong can unwittingly see things too much alike.  If a group is facing a challenge that demands fresh eyes, it is likely that there will be none.  One telling symptom is often strong resistance to change.  It’s a certain sign that people believe they are right, but can’t quite remember why. 

The solution can come from sources we have been touting for decades:  people who are different.  This is the “real” definition of diversity:  people who have different mind sets and perspectives, different ideas and backgrounds.  Whether or not people look alike is superficial diversity.  We’re looking here for different world views and differing ways of problem solving.   But here’s the problem:  we have to listen to each other and cultivate a deep sense of open-minded curiosity.  Arnold Mindell calls this “Deep Democracy.”  That’s not typically what experts do, having been trained to have the answers.

Another cause of type-three errors is continuing to do what we’ve always done without going to the balcony to take a more objective view.  Where we are now might be a novel situation. One we have not been in before.  But, to resurrect the old Maslow quote ““It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”    Mitroff again puts this more clearly:  “The trouble is that the problems one already knows how to solve may bear little resemblance to the problems one actually needs to solve.”   

Again, the situation demands an open mind and the tools to be innovative.  One outcome of this design is that all problems should have multiple answers before we can move into decision and implementation.  Having only one answer is usually group think or an authority forcing his/her opinion.  Only two answers will typically polarize a group.  A minimum of three possibilities shows that the group has probably been more thorough and can help avoid a type-three.   That is the definition of choice:  having multiple elements to choose from.  Watch how often a group forces toward ending up with only one answer.  Decision making studies have shown that if you think there is a right answer, then the first one that looks right is chosen and the thinking stops there.   Problems today rarely have only one right answer.  This new world operates more in “shades of gray” than in black and white.

One last point about type-three errors.  One of the best ways to avoid them is to resist the seduction of having the answers and use questions instead–at least in the beginning stages of thinking through an issue.  Here are two of the best to keep in mind at all times:  For whom do we exist and for what purpose?  Everything we do every minute of every day should add up to answering these two questions.  If not, then we have either answered the questions incorrectly or we are doing the wrong thing.

Peter Drucker said it best:  The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”

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1390 Broadway, Ste B101
Placerville, California 95667