The Power of Negative Thinking

When my son was in kindergarten, his teacher encouraged him to learn his numbers from 1-100.  One of the games she said would help was to play “Guess the Number.”

“Alright son, I am thinking of a number between 1 and 100.  Your job is to ask me questions to figure out what the number is.”

My son went on to ask about every number.  “Is it one?”  No.  “Is it two?”  No.  By the time he got to “Is it eighteen?” I finally realized I didn’t have to use “74.”  Yes son, you won.

When he asked to play again, I obliged.  Only this time, his first question was different.  He asked, “Is it eighteen?” right off the bat.  It was then I realized that this is how we solve problems in our own lives, and it’s incredibly ineffective.  Whether it’s a problem with software a new product, or a manufacturing process, we often implement solutions because they worked the last time, ignoring new data and contradictory evidence.  Our experience can actually lead us astray as we compound the problem by seeking data that supports our conclusion – a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.”

In “Guess the Number,” we all know that the best first question is the one that eliminates the most possible choices: “Is it greater than fifty?”  With one question, we may not know the answer, but we definitely know what the answer is not. There is power in this type of negative thinking, and when we’re looking for the root cause to problems, it can have tremendous benefit. Here are some tips to try:

1.  Ask what the problem could be, but is not.  Don’t just describe what the problem is.  Spend time identifying what the problem could be but is not.

2.  Don’t ask “Why?”  Ask “Why Not?” instead.  Often we encourage confirmation bias by asking people to justify why they believe something is the root cause of the problem.  Instead, ask people to uncover data that explain why a potential cause is not the root cause.  If you can’t identify any “why not’s,” then it could be your most likely cause.

3.  Seek to eliminate possible causes first, rather than confirm them.    Just ask, “Which possible causes can we eliminate because they would cause a problem we are not seeing?” For example, let’s say you can’t open this email.  It might be a problem with your internet service provider.  But, if another computer in your house uses the same connection and it’s working just fine, then the blame lies elsewhere.

So, turn on your negative thinking.  We have seen such thinking save our clients time and energy that they would have wasted implementing false fixes.  If you would like to implement effective negative thinking at your organization, give us a call at (800) 386-5611.