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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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? rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.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:

PadlocksDiagonal Collaborations: Dazzling or Dangerous?
Collaborations can be very productive. There are some traps though, especially when the collaborators are of different rank, with the partner of lower rank reporting to a peer of the other. Here are some tips for preventing conflict in diagonal collaborations.
A spider plant, chlorophytum comosum.What Enough to Do Is Like
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
A mantis shrimp, recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of lightA Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff
As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
A pyramidal silk teabag of spiced black teaPatching Up the Cracks
When things repeatedly "fall through the cracks," we're not doing the best we can. How can we deal with the problem of repeatedly failing to do what we need to do? How can we patch up the cracks?
A hospital patientCongruent Decision-Making: II
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A meeting held in a long conference room.Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
A dictionaryAnd on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.