Decide, Solve, or Adapt

Decision-making and problem-solving are closely related. Effective problem-solving demands making the right decision. And, if you'll pardon the pun, herein lies the problem.

We all make mistakes; no one can make the right decision every time. As parents, one lesson we learn, and are usually reminded by our kids on a regular basis, is that we do not get it right every time. We do the best we can with what we know at the time. It's comforting to know, therefore, that even acknowledged leaders do not make the right decision every time. Napoleon, for example, lost (to death and desert) more than 90% of his half-million troops when he invaded Russia. Mao's 'leadership' killed tens of millions of his people. Churchill stuffed-up poorly the Gallipoli campaign that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. John F. Kennedy will be remembered for the Bay of Pigs fiasco (he somehow persuaded himself that 1400 US-trained Cuban exiles might defeat 200,000 troops and topple Fidel Castro).

What matters most for the parents, leaders, and other (human) decision-makers is to learn from their mistakes and adapt.

When it comes to problem-solving, therefore, it's not surprising that trial-and-error remains as an accepted way to solve problems. I recently experienced a problem with my telephone. I did not know if it was the line, the handset, the filter, or the wall-socket. A (Telstra in the Land of Oz) technician was able to secure me that the line-connection was fine. I then disconnected the handset and connected it to a wall-socket that I knew was working well. The handset worked brilliantly, so I was able to eliminate the handset as a problem-cause. I reconciled the handset and replaced the existing filter with a new one. The problem persisted. By trial and error, I isolated the problem to the wall-socket. I fixed the socked: problem-solved.

This is not to suggest that we should leave everything to trial and error or relly on that approach, completely. After all, repeated failure is severely an essential ingredient of success. Again, we need to learn from our mistakes and adapt as quickly as possible.

We've come a long way in our knowledge of decision-making and problem-solving. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there's no getting it back. The key message is to learn from our mistakes and adapt accordingly.

In the world of problem-solving and decision-making, Alexander Pope's 'To err is human, to forgive divine' could become To err is human, so learn to adapt – regularly and quickly.