The two backpackers, Jim and Dale, were enjoying a lovely cool spring day in the mountains. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, the birds were singing and all was right with the world. Suddenly, a very large and apparently hungry grizzly bear came barreling out of the trees headed straight for them. Realizing they were in great danger, they began running as fast they could, away from the bear. They soon realized the grizzly was gaining on them, and gaining very fast. Running as fast as he could, Jim turned to see where Dale was, and was shocked to see him sitting down taking off his boots and putting on his sneakers, which he’d just taken out of his backpack.
Jim yelled, “Dale, what are you doing? You’re going to die if you sit there any longer. Run, man, run!!” Dale, calmly smiled and said, “Jim, you’re not thinking about the problem right. You think the problem is a fierce grizzly bear and the solution is to run as fast as you can. But the REAL problem is who can run the fastest, and what can be done to ensure the greatest foot speed possible. You see, I don’t have outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you!”
Many of you have probably heard that joke before, or a form of it. But it clearly sets up the point I wish to make. Much of what we do to manage problems or challenges in business and life requires us to first properly assess our situation. Many times the situation is fairly straightforward, not requiring our highest and best thinking. But sometimes, things aren’t so clear cut. The big risk is that if you don’t clearly understand what is going on, you will NOT be able to come up with good, viable alternatives and your course of action will most certainly be a huge mistake, costing you time, money and who knows what else. I believe we often get ourselves into the worst situations when we aren’t thinking right about our problems. Below are my suggestions for making sure you’re seeing the problem correctly.
Are you thinking about the problem correctly?
- What is the question being asked? Make sure you’ve identified the right question. When someone asks which alternative is best, you should ask, “What do you mean by best; fastest, cheapest, quickest, lightest?,” etc. If you don’t identify the right question, you will answer the wrong one.
- What are the scope and boundaries of the problem? Often just by accurately defining the boundaries of the problem, you completely eliminate some of the outlying alternatives, making your choices fewer and simpler. No analytics needed here, just common sense.
- What assumptions are you making? Most of the time your assumptions make or break your understanding of the problem, as it did in the story about Jim and Dale. Make sure you know your assumptions. For example, if someone has indeed asked which answer is “best,” challenge your assumptions on what defines “best.” I’ve often found that what I always thought was “best,” really wasn’t.
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