What to do when you don’t know what to do

by David Lewis
Many problems are familiar and easily solved using our experience and intuition. However, in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations we encounter new challenges. We find ourselves in situations where our experience gets in the way and hinders our success. In this VUCA world it’s how we interact, harness differences and test solutions that determines success.

If you’re faced with a problem that – being entirely honest with yourself – you simply don’t know how to solve, use these principles to help you innovate, find new solutions and create value.

1. Recognise unknown situations when they arise – your expertise may not provide the answer

Assume you were an amateur chess player and imagine you were asked to memorise chess pieces on a board for a few seconds. How well would you do? Not as well as a chess master according to research by Dutch chess master and psychologist Adriaan de Groot in 1965. Later, psychologist William Chase and social scientist Herbert Simon built on de Groot’s work by asking an expert as well as an amateur and a novice to memorise the board. They added a new condition: the players viewed both real and scrambled chess positions (impossibly random positions). The master excelled when memorising the real positions but performed no better than the amateur and novice for the scrambled positions. It proved that an expert advantage comes from familiarity.

This is a demonstration of experience bias. When the rules of the game change, it is all too easy to believe you’re dealing with a situation from your past. The legendary management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” Stop and think before trying to apply your existing knowledge to an unknown situation that from the outside looks familiar – your automatic response may not provide the answer.

The first thing to be aware of when you’re trying to solve a new problem is to recognise that it is beyond your experience. I know what you’re thinking. If I was standing in front of you now, you’d say, “But David, I know a lot.” To overcome experience bias you must confess to yourself, “I don’t know this!” It might sound blindingly obvious, but how many times have you been aware of the people around you doing what they know, but what simply doesn’t work. Perhaps you’re even guilty of doing that yourself.

2. When you don’t know what to do, talk to people who think and see things differently to you

Now that you’ve let go of your ego a little, you can concentrate on solving the problem by asking for help. Beware of confirmation bias, when we unconsciously start looking for confirming evidence about one of our own ideas. We start emphasising and overplaying things that reinforce our own thoughts. Worse, we fail to see things that undermine what we think we are seeing. We make up things that we haven’t seen, that aren’t there and then convince first ourselves and then others around us that this is “the truth”.

One of your best assets when you’re tackling an uncertain situation and you don’t know what to do is different opinions. If in your midst there are people who disagree, what should you do? Cherish them. They are the most important people in the room not because they’re right, but because they disagree and therefore you can have a serious conversation. If everybody agrees with the solution to an extremely complicated problem that you haven’t seen before, be very, very afraid. Go and find someone to disagree with. Harness this unconstrained way of thinking, explore and challenge your assumptions and look at the problem from different perspectives.

3. When you’re facing a new situation, keep asking the question, but ask it in many different ways

By now you’ve recognised that this situation is outside of your experience. You’ve asked for help and sought out fresh opinions. This third principle is more about getting the best out of people – it’s the “how you ask”.

The Monty Hall problem, a brain teaser, demonstrates this perfectly. Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a prize – say, a pot of gold – and behind each of the other doors is a goat. You pick a door and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, which has a goat behind it. Then you have a choice between two doors, the one you originally picked and the other unopened door, the host asks: “Do you want to stick or switch?”

Trust me, the better strategy is to switch. But to find that out you have to play the game and ask the right questions. For example, I once heard a participant say, “Imagine there were an infinite number of doors”. The chances of picking the right door are slim when there are an infinite number of doors – enough to make most people doubt their strategy of sticking. This is a great example of reframing a problem because while you can’t physically have an infinite number of doors, you can imagine an infinite number of doors. The next important approach to solving a problem is to experiment – to play the game – which brings me on to principle four.

4. Experiment: play the game over and over again

There’s no point in endless arguing about unknown scenarios without any evidence, particularly if you can generate evidence. You need to try out solutions to gain real understanding. Play, pilot, experiment. The more you can give people access to touching, feeling and smelling the problem and being part of what you’re trying to make happen, the easier it is for them to engage and be open-minded and learn new things. If you enter into an intellectual debate for the next 10 minutes about goats and doors you will learn nothing. Once you have collected some data you will find that you have to rethink your next steps. Don’t get frustrated. That’s the beauty of not knowing what to do. You’ll soon find out.

Useful resources:
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