Business Unusual

Solving puzzles and mysteries, and what all of us may be missing about it

In 1896 the term “fog of war” was used to describe the uncertainty that the military faces during a battle. So many variables change so quickly. In some cases, a scenario that may have supported your objective could switch and become an obstacle.

As a way to overcome the fog and gain an advantage, the military has been at the forefront of improving intelligence gathering and communications.

Technologies we take for granted such as the internet and GPS have their roots in military intelligence.

Dealing with a situation where the “fog” exists makes it a puzzle scenario where you are expected to make some calls with limited information and, relying on the gathered facts, you do have to pick the right option. You would also like to try to find the missing information as obtaining it would provide you with the upper hand.

I suspect if you asked most small business owners they would say a significant challenge is not having enough information about their markets, although if you were to ask a large business, it might well be that they have too much.

Both are true, and the skill needed in business big and small is to assess whether they are dealing with a puzzle (too little info) or mystery (too much).

The puzzle/mystery illustration comes from the former Chair of the National Intelligence Council, the US body tasked with strategic thinking for the US intelligence agencies. Greg Treverton served till 2016 and used the distinction as a way to determine what the issue is that needs to be addressed.

Small businesses may assume that, because they typically lack information about all their problems, these can be solved by gathering more information.

Large businesses might assume they have more than enough and so craft what they think are well-informed strategies only to be surprised when they don’t work despite realising that with hindsight they did have the information to predict or avoid the poor course of action.

Right now we don’t know if Bitcoin will succeed or if SAA can be turned around or if Steinhoff will survive. But in a few years' time we will be sure, and books will be written about it, so we never get caught out again. Go ahead read the books, just don’t think it will actually change anything until we change something else first.

Let me first allow you to test yourself and what your approach might be. Assume you have lost your ship in the Atlantic and have an all-weather lighter in your pocket. There are a few other supplies you might want to load into your life raft. You don’t know how long you may be at sea or if and when you may be rescued. Select three from the following list.

  • 10 litres of petrol
  • Fishing kit
  • Shaving mirror
  • 2 boxes of chocolate
  • Shark repellant
  • 25 litres of water

Do you have enough or too little information to make your selection? The original list has 15 items - would that have made it easier, or more difficult?

The three highest rated items in the 15 are the shaving mirror, the petrol and the water in that order.

The mirror and petrol would supposedly offer the best opportunity for signalling to rescuers and, while food is important, you really need water.

If you picked those items, well done, you appear to have good analysis skills. However, if you also questioned the logic of the answers above, take a bonus point. The test is widely available as a team building exercise and quotes either the US Coast Guard, US Merchant Marines or simply “experts” as the source of the answers. I could not verify that but used it to illustrate how even when you get given “answers” you may still need to check them.

Using frequently quoted sources is not enough. Odds are you know about the Dutch tulip speculative bubble; that it was disastrous to the Dutch economy and ruined many a greedy and uninformed speculator. It appears that the actual history may be less dramatic. There was a bubble and a collapse in the bulb price, but the extent was overstated. According to historian Anne Goldgar, much of the story we know came from a later writer who embellished it. The records paint a different picture. Take a listen to BBC’s More or Less podcast with Goldar and the story of how the exaggerated account became the most common one.

Malcolm Gladwell on why governments need to solve mysteries and not puzzles.

What has this got to do with the 4th Industrial Revolution?

The improvements in gathering and processing data are shifting the world from a lack of information to an absolute glut of it. John Wanamaker in the past might have said that half his advertising does not work, but he did not know which half. The reality today is that you may know more about your customer and his buying habits than he does, but still may make bad decisions. There is no shortage of companies apologising for campaigns that after-the-fact seemed like obvious errors.

It is not a bad intention that is the problem, it is a lack of skills to evaluate so much data. Afterwards, once someone tells you the answer, there is an a-ha moment, but it won’t save you from making the same error again.

Machines can also crunch much bigger sets of data that we can, looking for a missing piece of information will be their domain in the future. But there is something machines are unlikely to be able to do for while - ask really good questions.

For that, you need to take a leaf out of science’s book. Despite a worrying trend for many to doubt scientific or expert views, preferring to rely on belief rather than change the way they think. Science typically tries to find information that will prove a hypothesis wrong as much as finding evidence to prove it right (proving things wrong is often easier and faster which allows you to test more hypotheses).

Schools still focus on the principal of getting students to learn the correct answers while the greater skill is to learn how to ask the right question, then determine which data would be appropriate to use to create the likely scenarios and then finally decide which scenario to pursue.

You don’t get simple answers anymore, I doubt you ever did. While we excused a poor collective decision in the past, the future will make that more glaring. The individuals, companies and governments that will succeed are ones able to work out which items you really need to survive a shipwreck, not only pick them from a list and hope for the best.


This article first appeared on 702 : Solving puzzles and mysteries, and what all of us may be missing about it


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