Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 44;   November 3, 2010: How to Make Good Guesses: Strategy

How to Make Good Guesses: Strategy

by

Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
The Bay of Whales off the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica

The Bay of Whales off the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarc­tica. The upper photo is a South-facing view of the Bay and the Ice Shelf from the Ross Sea. The lower photo is a satellite image, in which the South Pole is approximately in the direction of our one o'clock. As is evident in the lower photo, the Ross Ice Shelf, which is essentially a very complicated glacier floating on the Ross Sea, rides over and around a large island, known as Roosevelt Island. The highest point of the central ridge of Roosevelt Island is about 1800 feet above sea level. It is this island that creates the "bay" by slowing, relative to the rest of the ice sheet, the part of the ice sheet that must travel over the island.

The Bay of Whales was first discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in 1841. Of course, he knew nothing of Roosevelt Island. Next to visit was Capt. Robert F. Scott in 1902, leading the Discovery Expedition. For their visit, the Bay was more of a nook in shape, due to the randomness of glacial calving at the edge of the Shelf. Next to visit was the Nimrod Expedition in 1908, led by Ernest Shackleton, who gave the Bay its name. The Bay was now no longer a nook — it was a bay again. This variation created some ambiguity about the identity of the feature, and added to anxiety about its stability and suitability as a base camp. As Capt. Roald Amundsen was planning his own assault on the South Pole, he had read all these reports, and shrewdly guessed that land of some kind lay beneath the ice shelf at this point, grounding it, and that the feature would be stable enough for a base camp. It had numerous other advantages, including an abundance of wildlife for fresh meat, and its position — almost 80 miles further south than any other possible base on edge of the shelf. It was a good guess — a very good guess. Upper photo courtesy P. Bond. Lower photo courtesy the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Knowing how to make good guesses — really good guesses — is a skill so valuable that a mystique has grown up about it. Most of us believe that guessing right is so difficult that doing it consistently requires inborn talent, and there's no point trying to learn how to do it better. Many look upon shrewd guesses as examples of genius that we can't possibly emulate.

Although consistently shrewd guessing probably does require genius, we can learn how to make better guesses at least once in a while — for instance, when we're knowledgeable or when we have exceptional intuition about the specific domain of the guess. Here are some strategies for getting better at guessing right.

Let go of trying to be right
The defining property of guesses is that we can't be sure they're right. That's why an aversion to saying anything that might be wrong makes guessing difficult. This presents challenges for people in occupations in which credibility is highly valued. But even there, we can limit the impact of guessing on credibility by clearly identifying guesses as such.
Believing that mistakes are disastrous constrains the imagination. Be willing to let your mind float.
Don't fall in love with guesses
A guess is not a fact. It might be a good guess, but it's still a guess, no matter how well it explains what you've observed, and no matter how much you prefer the world described by the implications of that guess.
Distinguishing between factual reality and guesses can be difficult, because the mixture of guesses and facts is a more complex picture of the world than is a collection of facts. It's helpful to make more than one guess, because a multiplicity of guesses — three or more — is a reminder that guesses are not facts. When describing a guess to yourself or others, it also helps to begin with the phrase, "I don't know (or we can't know) for sure, but…"
Look at the data you do have from strange and unique perspectives
When we make A guess is not a fact.
It might be a good guess,
but it's still a guess.
observations, we tend to use familiar vantage points. Stepping away from the familiar usually requires conscious intent, because the unfamiliar is unfamiliar.
For instance, searching for commonalities between disparate items is difficult for pairs of items that don't usually go together. A rewarding question to ask about each pair might be, "If these two things had a common cause, what would that be?" The problem is even more complicated — and it can be even more rewarding — when we think of three items at once, or four.

Next time we'll examine some specific techniques for making good guesses.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Make Good Guesses: Tactics  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenyPcgrpXitetXhdTJner@ChacJAEBraajdaFfKjWnoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

FedEx logoFedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference
Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open a universe of new choices.
A single-strand knotTangled Thread Troubles
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
A 1928 Ford Model A Business CoupeClueless on the Concept
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National ParkContextual Causes of Conflict: I
When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenkSIbvQmkDVnnCkyHner@ChacWOLPiEqadpFpPQTdoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.