Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do

“Intelligence = knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”. That’s what one of my lecturers at university said. It stuck with me – and will forever.

Wouldn’t it be great if we always knew what to do? Wow, dozens of my problems and things I worry about daily would be solved instantly! Of course, that’s not our experience of everyday life. Our brain is constantly thinking and trying to figure out things. Most of it happens unconsciously and most of it is not a challenge for our brain*. However, when we are confronted with surprising, novel situations we scratch our head and say “hey, that makes no sense at all, what’s going on, what does that mean”? Sounds familiar to you? I bet. So, what do you do then?

Personally, I got so curious about sensemaking that I did a PhD on the subject. You could say I am an expert in sensemaking = “figuring out stuff”, “understanding stuff”. I have come across many strategies that can be used to speed up the process of understanding something. I’d like to share my favourite strategies with you (there are so many more but these are the ones that work for me). I hope they help you to save time, solve problems faster, understand complex situations better…(this is again a key skill they don’t teach you in any course but is a highly sought after capability!!).

“Now wait a minute, pal. That’s not new. That’s just good old fashioned problem solving!”, I hear you say. “No, it’s not!” I say. Sensemaking is about understanding the problem you need to solve in the first place. Only if you understand if there is a problem and what it is, you can go on to solve it successfully.

Before I share my 10 favourite strategies let me describe 3 situations. Try out the strategies on each of the situations and you will see that it makes sense to use them…

First case: Your boss tells you that you have to deliver the project in half the time, for 20% of the budget, with only 10% of the people. You better get an idea what that means and how to do it. Get working!

Second case: Your son / daughter comes home, he/she shouts at you “I will never ever talk to you again!”, runs past you, doors get slammed. That’s it. Wow, what was that about?

Third case: You went for an adventure holiday in the Canadian woods. You got lost, 400 miles to the next town, no GPS, no mobile phone reception, no map, food and drink left for 1 day, no one to talk to (except the bears) – you are not Bear Grylls! Good luck is all I say….you’ll need it.

  • “I Keep Six Honest Serving Men …”

Rudyard Kipling: “I KEEP six honest serving-men; (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.”Don’t overcomplicate things. These 6 questions are all you need but consultants need to sell complicated frameworks, otherwise half the consulting industry would be out of business…

  • Back to basics

I sit in a lot of meetings where I see people trying to be as complicated as possible about running projects, solving problems etc. (everyone has an opinion but no practical suggestion to make progress). I try to “get back to basics” on a topic, e.g. running a project: the basics = describe the what, who, when, where, how, why. Often you discover it was not defined. Defining it solves 80% of your problem. Other basics: shut up and listen, spend quality time, what goes around comes around…

  • A known framework

How do consultancies earn money? Selling data and knowledge. Part of it is to develop a 4 by 4 matrix, apply it to the context of their clients’ company to understand what is going on and suggest solutions. Example: Porter’s 5 forces, McKinsey’s 7S, BCG Matrix, SWOT analysis, Cynefin framework, forcefield analysis………………. For a lot of things we try to understand there are frameworks we can use. If there is none, invent one!

  • The MacGyver approach

I am stuck, I have no idea what to do. Think about what someone else would do in this situation. For me it is MacGyver (not that I am often stuck in a basement and need to escape in 15 seconds before a bomb will explode…). It can be anyone: mum, dad, Alice Cooper, the A-TEAM, Richard Branson, someone you admire…you get the idea…

  • Just do something! Anything! Now!

Sometimes you have no clues or reference points you can use as orientation. Instead of not doing anything it is better to do something. At least, this may create a reference point that you can use. The worst thing that can happen is that what you do does not work. Then at least you know what does not work. Example: You cannot be sure 100% which specific features your customers like on a product. Create 3 rapid mock-ups and put them to the test. The customer feedback is your reference point that will help you in the next product iteration.

  • Ask someone

There is a 99% chance that someone else has been in the same situation as you. People love being asked for advice. It makes them feel important. Ask 5 people, you will get at least 10 answers. 10 reference points from 5 different brains are a good start. Even if the answers are nonsense. It may just help you phrase a better question!

  • Questions, questions, questions…

This really means “ask lots of clarifying questions. But really a LOT!”. No one seems to have time for that and people seem even offended if you ask them lots of questions. “Why do we need this… how are we going to do this… what are we actually trying to achieve….how does an acceptable solution look like?????” Have you ever been in a 2 hour meeting with heated discussions and at the end there is this person who was quiet all the time and by just asking 1 question everyone realises “hey, we should have asked that 2 hours ago, then we would have made real progress”. The questions asked usually starts with “WHY….”

  • The mother of all questions: WHY?

If you watched the 2nd part of the Matrix trilogy you’ll remember the scene with the Merovingian who deals with information. He says something along the lines of “I know why you [Neo] are here but do you? You just do things because you are told to. But without WHY you have no real power”. James Altucher** says there is always a reason and a real reason. “Why” is the most important question you can ask. It is also a brilliant BS detector…it tells you if people just talk or know what they talk about…

  • Read up

Amazing what you can find out by a 20min search on the internet….Limit yourself to 20min and do a speed reading job. You get a lot of good and bad reference points during that time.

  • List what you (don’t) know

Sometimes I go back to basics and just make 2 lists: here is what I know, here is what I don’t know. You will be surprised by what you already know. Now you can ask the right questions.

  • Patience and persistence

Depending on the situation you are faced with you may have to accept that there is no way you will make sense of it over night. It may be a long process, days, weeks, years… it may be a journey, a 5000 piece puzzle where you find 1 piece at the time…sometimes you have to accept that it just takes time, good friends to talk to and a cup of hot chocolate. In the end, its all about happiness…

Finally: I am curious.

Try out the strategies to the 3 cases I described above and let me know how you got on.

Let me know what strategies you use – and why.

Enjoy, have fun, be happy.

*Read more about this in Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” –Thinking, Fast and Slow

** James Altucher 10 ways honesty is going to make you more money


2 thoughts on “Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do

  1. My personal favourite techniques out of these are:

    Just doing something / Asking someone else (works very well when faced with IT problems!) / reading up / lots of patience.

    Techniques I don’t do often enough include:

    Going back to basics / What Why When How Where Who / questions questions questions (I’m always scared of being seen as a fool)

    Great stuff as always Dr JRB!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your favourites 🙂 I try to get better at going back to basics but don’t use it often enough. I am happy that you enjoy the post. Have a great weekend and don’t forget the towel 😉


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