Small business owners are problem solvers. Whether it is how to do more with less, how to fill an unexpected large order on short notice, or how to expand in a shrinking market, the successful small business owner will find a way to get it done.

However, what separates the modestly successful from the uber successful may just be the effectiveness of the problem solving approach and techniques employed.

A recent New York Times post, A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving, highlights several common strategic thought pitfalls.

The puzzle begins by providing a sequence of three numbers, and asking you to guess the rule that the list obeys. You can use the tool on the page to test as many three number samples as you like, and the tool will tell you whether it conforms to the rule or not.

The given sequence that obeys the rule is: 2, 4, 8

Can you figure out the rule? Go to the Puzzle to test out your hypothesis, then when you’re sure you’ve got it, enter it in the response box and click the “I think I know it button” to check your answer.

When you’re done, scroll down and read the rest of this post.









Did you get the very simple answer right?

If you did, you followed a basic KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) rule, and figured out that the rule was nothing more than each number being larger than the previous one. If not, you probably came up with a more complicated solution (such as each number being twice the previous), and tested several variations in the tool to confirm your hypothesis. Not surprisingly, you were told that each followed the rule, and didn’t bother to test further with a number set that would produce a “no” response.

According to the Times post, “78 percent of people who have played this game so far have guessed the answer without first hearing a single no. A mere 9 percent heard at least three nos — even though there is no penalty or cost for being told no, save the small disappointment that every human being feels when hearing “no. It’s a lot more pleasant to hear “yes.” That, in a nutshell, is why so many people struggle with this problem.”

As the post notes, this is a perfect example of “Confirmation bias,” a theory that posits people are more likely to believe and to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. As a result the post explains, “people never even think about asking questions that would produce a negative answer when trying to solve a problem — like this one. They instead restrict the universe of possible questions to those that might potentially yield a “yes.”

The Times post provides examples of how confirmation bias can adversely affect government and business decision making. This Wall Street Journal article uses the story of a magician’s trick to show confirmation bias in action. Interestingly, this 2012 New Yorker article highlights research indicating that the most intelligent people are those most likely to fall victim to their cognitive biases.

So what is a smart small business owner to do? It is incredibly difficult to identify your own biases, especially when you’re in the thick of a problem and need to come up with quick, effective solutions. (If you didn’t get the answer to the Times puzzle, you missed it even though your brain was on heightened alert to some kind of “trick.”) But, here are a few suggestions:

  • KISS it. Try not to overthink; sometimes the simplest solution really is the right one, so don’t discount it for being straightforward.
  • Seek out “No” answers. This means surrounding yourself with a smart, thoughtful team; not a bunch of “yes-men.” It also means looking for the answer that disproves the rule, rather than only the one that confirms it.
  • Don’t always go with your first solution. Our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts that don’t always lead to the correct answer. Take a moment to reflect, and then try to logically work through a problem step-by-step before taking action.
  • Remain open to new ideas. The more open and flexible your mind is, the more likely it is to embrace the right solution when it is presented, even if that solution is contrary to your current experience and beliefs. If your first instinct is to dismiss an idea out of hand, force yourself to consider it from all angles before making a decision.
Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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