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? rbrengZDAnxtBWzBrQXTcner@ChaccZRGmrLweMlbCeKaoCanyon.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:

Sleeping ducksAppreciate Differences
In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate — expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
PencilsVirtual Communications: I
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
Jersey barriers outside the U.S. White HouseProblem Defining and Problem Solving
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
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?
The deadline at Rock Island Prison during the U.S. Civil WarIrrational Deadlines
Some deadlines are so unrealistic that from the outset we know we'll never meet them. Yet we keep setting (and accepting) irrational deadlines. Why does this happen?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A pair discussion in a speedstormComing February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
A meeting that's probably a bit too largeAnd on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenyEILNeMBQUNlNbcZner@ChacegauIKVXoWXisodioCanyon.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.

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.