What doctors do that CEOs don’t

 In Business decisions, Critical Thinking, Decision-making, Insights, Realizer Blog

85% of business leaders admit their organisations are not good at problem diagnosis, and 87% agreed this had significant costs – according to a recent Harvard Business Review article.

Imagine going to a doctor who was bad at diagnosing problems, realized that this was hurting patients, and yet did nothing about it. You wouldn’t go back to that doctor.

So what can we do to define the problem well in business?

Solving the right problem

Here’s an example. A few years ago, I was in a leadership team meeting. We were debating the virtues of Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook for our B2B marketing. An hour in, someone smart said, “Hang on, what’s the underlying problem we’re trying to solve?”

We looked at each other and you could see everyone thinking, “Oh. We just wasted an hour. How silly.

A short time later, we’d defined the problem: How to raise awareness amongst prospective clients. This allowed us to identify a much broader range of solutions than just social media, as well as have a productive debate and specific next steps.

According to decision-making expert Erik Larsen at Cloverpop, managers can spend up to 35 hours deliberating and meeting before they make a big decision, so it is going to make a huge difference if you can start out by defining the problem well.

Define the problem properly

A famous example of how to do this features in Think Like a Freak – from the authors of Freakonomics. Takeru Kobayashi doubled the world record for the number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes.

How did he do it? He changed the question.

Everyone was asking, “How can I eat more hot dogs?” and he asked, “How can I make hot dogs easier to eat?” By reframing the question, he thought of ideas like eating the buns and sausages separately. Everyone else was eating them together: a bun with a sausage in it. He would eat three sausages together, while with his other hand dip the buns in some water and then eat them. This also eliminated his need to stop and drink water. Another time saver. He ate 52 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

To master this skill isn’t that hard in real life.

Any time I’m in a meeting or faced with a problem, I just use a technique called, Think Like a Doctor.

Think Like a Doctor

Quite simply, it means:-

  1. Keep an open mind as you review the symptoms. Business people famously leap to conclusions. Doctors might form a hypothesis, but they’ll test their hypothesis by asking more questions.
  2. Look for the underlying problem. Don’t forget to separate symptoms from causes. Business people often come up with ideas to solve the symptom, but don’t treat the underlying cause.
  3. Ask both confirming and disconfirming questions to rule out causes. Business people (and humans in general) suffer from the confirmation bias: they ask questions to confirm what they already believe. Doctors will also ask questions to check other (more serious) illnesses, even if it looks like you’ve got a common cold.
  4. Hold off discussing solutions until a diagnosis is clear. Doctors take time to take a patient history and ask broad questions before narrowing down into specifics. Business people often go straight to detail without thinking big picture.
  5. Use a checklist. If you go to an emergency room, the doctors go through a set series of questions to work out whether immediate action is needed. Business people don’t typically use checklists, although there’s a good one here, which according to its creator is the best way to improve decisions in an organisation.

These steps are largely self-explanatory because you’ve been to the doctor and seen them do it. So you should be able to apply them to your business.

If you do that, you might just end up helping the team make a breakthrough, shortening the length of meetings and turning discussions into decisions.

Let me know what you think. In my experience, identifying the real underlying issue can be a huge step forward in making better decisions. And asking those good questions of your team is an amazingly valuable leadership skill.

For more on this topic see 10 questions a CEO should ask their team.

Written by Realizer’s Rob Pyne.