John Addis

What MI5, the CIA and the FBI can teach you about problem solving in your business.

Mysteries and puzzles

One of the following problems is a mystery, the other a puzzle.

Problem 1: Your website needs upgrading. This is how you approach it: You download the weblog files to assess your website traffic. You ask your customers what areas of the site they think need improvement. You research various possibilities on the web and talk to a few web design gurus. Then you write out your plan and set about implementing it.

Problem 2: You need a general manager: The recruitment agency has been briefed, you’ve met a few candidates, interviewed three of them twice and given each one a psychological test. You’ve even taken your preferred candidate out for dinner and offered her a deal.

American national security expert Gregory Treverton would probably argue that the first problem is a puzzle. In developing a new website you need to gather information that you don’t have and use it in a coherent way to develop the new site. As long as you have appropriate information and apply it in a sensible way, the website upgrade will probably be a success.

But with Problem 2, no matter how much information you gather on your new GM, you can’t be at all certain she’s right for the job. Her CV might be exceptional and her references outstanding, but you aren’t going to really know if she’s going to work out until she’s been on deck for at least a few months. Lacking a simple factual answer, this problem isn’t a puzzle, it’s a mystery.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, argues in a recent column in The New Yorker that this is not a trivial distinction. Indeed, the way that you approach a problem determines its outcome:

“If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda.

“If you consider September 11th to be a mystery, though, you’d have to ask whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and sceptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda.”

In his article, Gladwell goes on to show how much information that could have indicated the forthcoming collapse of Enron was, in fact, on the public record.

The puzzle wasn’t missing any pieces. There was already enough information to predict the collapse for anyone who cared to look. And that was the mystery: how so many people in the finance industry, whose job it is to pick up this sort of stuff, failed to do so (for the full and fascinating article, click here). 

Now think of that dull maxim of the over-promoted middle manager: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is puzzle thinking. In big business it leads to $1.6 million being spent on a new CRM (customer relationship management) and a job for McKinsey’s to tell us why it’s not working. Even in small business, it can lead to unnecessary forms, surveys, interviews and databases. More information. Less understanding.

Businesses do not succeed like this. This is how they fail.

If you want your business to succeed, you need to first determine whether the problems you face are mysteries or puzzles. I’d argue that the bigger issues – is there a market for this product?; should I appoint this person?; can I raise my prices? – are more mysterious than you probably think.

So think deeply about them. Use your experience, trust your intuition and seek out crazy geniuses who can challenge your thinking in irreverent, quirky ways. In many cases, we already have enough information. What we lack is the thinking to make full use of it.


To read more Business Buddhist blogs, click here.


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