How to Transcend Good Solutions

By David Peterson

Does your experience with “good” solutions in the past impede your ability to come up with “great” new ideas?

The answer to that fundamentally impacts the way you do your job.

Back in 1942, an American psychologist named Abraham Luchins conducted an experiment where he asked volunteers to do a math problem in their heads. He gave them three hypothetical jars with different capacities—one could hold 21 units of water, one could hold 127 units, and one could hold three units. The problem was to measure out exactly 100 units, using a process in which each jar must be filled to capacity before ultimately achieving the desired amount.

Can you do this math in your head? Try it.

The solution is to fill the 127 unit jar full, then pour water from that jar into the 21 unit jar, then fill the 3 unit jar twice. The remaining liquid in the 127 unit jar is now 100 (127-21-3-3=100).

In his experiments, Luchin gave his volunteers multiple examples, all requiring a similar three-step process. Then he gave them a problem that could be solved in the three-sequence manner—but it also had a two-sequence option. Many of Luchin’s subjects ignored the easier solution, following the now ingrained three-step solution. When Luchin gave them a scenario that could only be solved in a two-step process, some of the volunteers gave up, saying there was no possible solution.

This experiment highlights the tendency of the brain to stick to the tried and true—the known solution to a problem—versus seeking out a more efficient or elegant solution. This phenomenon is known as the Einstellung Effect.

Why you need to conquer the Einstellung Effect.

In my ABA Bank Marketing article series on metacognition, I encourage readers to “think about how they think.” Specifically, I ask them to:

One of the critical elements of thinktime is using all the available time to come up with creative solutions to vexing problems.

Suppose you have an issue that requires creative thought. You allocate an hour to think creatively on a solution. Hopefully, you have a space where you can get away from all other distractions. After settling your mind and putting aside all of the distracting thoughts (“That report Jim needs is due this afternoon”), you begin to really think. And you come up with an idea.

Chances are this idea will be something you have used before. It may be a slight iteration on a tried-and-true solution that worked in the past. Our natural inclination is to seize on that initial idea and immediately move towards implementing it as a potential solution.

That is likely a mistake.

You see, our thoughts are jammed full of unavoidable biases.

And confirmation bias—the idea that we tend to look for and assimilate information that affirms our previously ingrained belief about something—is one of the strongest. You must assume that any ideas you have, at least initially, are suspect to being influenced by confirmation bias.

Recognizing this, the solution to your problem is to:

  • Continue to think.
  • Iterate on your idea.
  • Move past your initial bias.
  • Come up with other ideas that build on the initial one.

It’s possible that your first idea is the ultimate solution. But if you have allocated an hour to think—and you get a good idea in the first 20 minutes, what is the harm in continuing to think and ideate for the remaining 40 minutes?

Coming up with a stronger, more creative idea is likely if you push past the desire to instantly implement the initial creative thought.

A Scientific American article describes a study in which researchers Heather Sheridan of the University at Albany and Eyal Reingold of the University of Toronto engaged both amateur and expert chess players and set up a board that called for a specific solution.

Most of the experienced chess players and all of the experts recognized the “smothered mate” solution, which called for five moves to achieve a checkmate. Interestingly, when the chess players were presented with a board that had the smothered mate solution available—but also a different solution that would achieve a checkmate in only three moves—only a few of the chess masters executed the quicker finish.

It was as if they couldn’t even see the other, more efficient, solution once they had the smothered mate solution in mind. The researchers placed sensors to study where the chess players were looking on the board. And, in fact, their eyes did not scan to see the easier solution. They were blind to its existence.

How does this play out in a business scenario?

Years ago when I was CEO of a payments company called Goldleaf, we experienced a situation in which the web-based system that allowed businesses to enter and submit ACH debits and credits would arbitrarily begin slowing down. It became a death spiral of slowness. It was never technically “down” but it was SOOOOO slow as to make the users think it was down. This caused users to shut down sessions and log back in, further exacerbating the problem.

It occurred on no particular schedule, but seemed to happen in the mid- to late afternoon. It might happen on a Tuesday afternoon but be fine Wednesday and Thursday, then strike again on Friday afternoon. Some of the events occurred on days when most users were attempting to process transactions for payroll events. As you can imagine, this caused much grief for our customers, as their businesses were naturally upset about the periodic outages.

We turned our code inside out looking for the bug. We attempted to analyze all environmental elements to see whether something about the internet connections was the cause. We would find something, run tests that showed an improvement and put in the fix, only to see the system death spiral two days later.

I was regularly on the phone with bank CEOs, who demanded to know what we were doing to resolve the problem.

After many weeks of failure, I hired a database consultant to come in and look at our code. He looked at all the diagnostic data and outlined everything possible that could create the outcome we were experiencing.

One of the conditions he outlined was a memory overwrite, something we had already crossed off as a potential suspect. But because this consultant knew nothing about payments or how our system worked, we had to give a detailed explanation of how transactions are organized into batches and then collected and processed into files. He asked if an individual user could create enough batches to overwrite the memory. Our engineers said it was possible, but it would require many thousands of batches to do so, and our customers were not that large.

But we had never actually looked to see how many batches our customers had. When we ran a query, we found a single customer at a single financial institution had mistakenly created a batch for every transaction. So, instead of thousands of transactions in a dozen batches, they had thousands of batches!

Cross-referencing user activity, we could instantly see that the system slowdown occurred whenever that particular user logged in. The programming fix took 5 minutes. Our technicians were so focused on seeking a software bug that they were blind to the other potential causes not being addressed. We were victims of the Einstellung Effect.

Think about your organization. Perhaps more importantly, think about how you think.

Is it possible you have allowed a confirmation bias to make you blind to other possibilities? Especially in a time of crisis, you must examine ALL potential issues that could cause the problem you are experiencing. You need to:

  • Be hyper aware of the Einstellung Effect.
  • Be vigilant about pressing through the desire to latch onto the first good idea you conceive.
  • Continue ideating to get all possible causes on the table.

Only then can you prioritize the list from highest to lowest probability, and work through eliminating issues until you reach a solution.

David Peterson is chief strategic officer at i7strategies, a consulting and strategic planning firm specializing in financial institutions and the companies that serve them.