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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 lab rats, mice and hamsters will get into a cage and run fast in the wheel for a very long time. The study showed, however, that a small percentage of these animals (a percentage in the low single digits) will not do that. The researchers 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. But laziness? My question to you is, which ones do you respect more? Maybe the “lazy” ones are actually the more innovative. 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. This term is a bit tongue-in-cheek as he pokes fun at statistics, but it is identified as “solving the wrong problem correctly.” We do this all the time. Sometimes it’s pretty harmless like ordering take-out food and solving for quick rather than solving for good.

But sometimes it can be extremely costly in money, resources, goodwill and in life itself. Raiffa explained the type three error as “solving the wrong problem precisely,” and trying to solve old and new problems with the assumptions, mindsets, and institutions of the past. Later, Ian Mitroff published significant work on the concept, especially in his 2009 book, Dirty Rotten Strategies.

The type three error is a dangerous form of group-think and can happen very innocently and with all good intentions. The causes are a bit surprising, having to do with, believe it or not, too much expertise in the same field. 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, it may be just baggage that 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. Sometimes groups facing a challenge that needs fresh eyes, have none to offer. One telling symptom of this is strong resistance to change. It’s a certain sign that people believe they are right, but can’t quite remember why.

What’s the solution? It 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 challenge: we have to actually listen to each other and cultivate a deep sense of open-minded curiosity. 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,” (2010).

Again, the situation demands an open mind and the tools to be innovative. The newest concept for breaking through old mindsets is called “design thinking.” Design thinking says that all problems should have at least 3 possible answers before we can move into decision and implementation. When there’s only one answer, it’s usually due to either group think or an authority forcing his/her opinion. With only two answers, typically a group will be polarized. But 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: multiple answers from which to select. Notice how often groups force their way toward only one answer. Decision making studies have shown that if you think there is a right answer, then the first one that looks right becomes the final choice, 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 a single “right” answer and emphasize 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 the answers to these two questions. If not, then we have either answered the questions wrong 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.”


Next Month’s column: Don’t have enough resources? Try a “sacrifice” session.


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, The Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected].


Image courtesy of http://fitnessgurunyc.com/?attachment_id=2814.


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One Response to Leadership Dilemmas: The Seduction of Correctly Solving the Wrong Problem

  1. J. Nelson Leith Reply

    March 21, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Drawing from the analogy of rats who build nests rather than run an endlessly futile race (assuming the nest represents the preferable option) this analogy does not lead to the conclusion that we should seek “people who have different mind sets and perspectives, different ideas and backgrounds.” Putting lots of different rats in cages will still result in mostly inferior wheel usage.

    The logical conclusion from the analogy is that people with the right questions (meaning the right thought process to identify the right questions) are in the minority, and they’ll be found by separating the wheat from the chaff through rigid and objective measures of intellect, not by simply letting everyone into the process. Diversity is a clumsy crowbar, and what we really need is a precise tape measure.

    What’s most ironic is that, since we have been “touting for decades” the power of diversity, trying to elevate the few by elevating the many is a perfect example of “continuing to do what we’ve always done without going to the balcony to take a more objective view.” Diversity is our hammer looking for a nail and, again ironically, the ideology of diversity has become the common heritage which is now “resistant to change.”

    The right questions to the problem of asking the right questions are (1) how can we accurately identify the type of intellect that asks the right questions, and (2) how can we put individuals from that minority into positions of influence, power, and authority, rather than the wheel-racers who have the advantage of numbers?

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