Informal Versus Formal Problem Solving

Informal versus Formal Problem Solving

This diagram shows the difference between informal and formal problem solving. You can see hypotheses and evidence are processed very differently.

Take a look at the first triangle. Here, we begin to form a single explanation as soon as we encounter a data set or scenario. The “support” for it comes consciously and subconsciously, internally and externally, based on such things as personal and professional experiences, and assumptions. As our hypothesis takes shape, we solidify it by seeking confirming evidence. If evidence contradicts our theory, we dismiss it or minimize its importance.

The problem with making judgments this way is mindsets are easy to develop and tough to shake. They tend to stop the analytical process because we think we’re done thinking. If new evidence comes along, it is subordinate to our conclusion, rather than the other way around.

Now take a look at the second triangle, which is inverted. It shows how we process the same scenario or data set when we use a structured thinking technique, such as the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). In ACH, we begin by considering multiple explanations for a data set or scenario. We choose a few hypotheses that seem likely, test them, and then methodically eliminate the ones the evidence does not support.

Here’s a personal experience that shows the power of structured thinking techniques. A few years ago, I was tasked with analyzing a suspicious incident that had been captured on CCTV. I approached my analysis convinced the subject was up to no good, but when I applied ACH I found the evidence did not support my theory. In fact, the only “supporting” evidence was my initial visual assessment of the subject’s behavior. The formal methodology resulted in the dismissal of all hypotheses except the one that found the subject’s actions were harmless. That is what I reported to investigators, and later investigation proved this to be true.

It’s hard to retrain our brains because thinking is an automatic process. Gut instinct has its place. But it is sometimes less reliable than formal analytic methods when analyzing ambiguous circumstances.

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