Years ago, when I was living in Cambridge, MA, I was a big fan of Ray and Tom Magliozzi, two MIT graduates who operated a car repair shop near where I lived. They launched a local radio show called Car Talk, and their show became a national hit.
CAR TALK: A MASTER CLASS IN EITHER/OR THINKING
Each week, listeners would present Tom and Ray with symptoms of trouble — like gradual deceleration going up hills or weird sounds coming from under the hood.
Then Tom and Ray would take over. With a good dose of humor, they argued about the true nature of the problem.
Tom and Ray were masters of either/or thinking.
RECOGNIZING THE LIMITS OF EITHER/OR THINKING
Either/or thinking works well on complicated problems with known solutions. Diagnosing the problem involves taking it apart.
But this approach can get us into trouble when we confront complex, wicked problems. These problems are difficult to define. Making sense of the situation is far more challenging.
THE POWER OF FAST, FRUGAL HEURISTICS
Fast-and-frugal heuristics are rules of thumb that enable us to make decisions in complex, deeply uncertain environments. These environments are tricky. There are too many factors to consider, so problems cannot be easily pulled apart.
Here, it is helpful to distinguish between environments that we can analyze and those we can’t. Heuristics work in both.
>> When we face a complex problem in an environment we can analyze, we need to follow a protocol of formal search and active detection. This is the basis of lean protocols.
>> We need a different approach when we face a complex problem in an environment we can’t analyze. We need to generate hypotheses quickly, experiment, and learn by doing.
With trial and error in both environments, we can generate productive heuristics. Over time, and with many years of experience, we can assemble these heuristics into coherent systems.
TOYOTA PRODUCTION SYSTEM (TPS): AN INTEGRATED SYSTEM OF HEURISTICS
The TPS is an excellent example of a coherent system of heuristics that works in an environment — a manufacturing operation — that we can analyze (de Treville et al., 2023). The TPS decentralizes decision-making within the manufacturing operation and makes it more responsive.
STRATEGIC DOING: INTEGRATED HEURISTICS FOR UNCERTAINTY
Strategic Doing and Performance-Driven Change represent two coherent systems of heuristics to address complex problems in environments that we cannot thoroughly analyze.
The first starts with open, loosely connected networks. The second addresses complex challenges within an existing organization. Both are deeply complementary design/do disciplines.
In these situations, we need rapid cycles of designing and doing; practitioners generate knowledge about environments they cannot thoroughly analyze. They learn by doing.
I am working on a paper about “heuristic systems.” If you want to learn more, please get in touch with me at the Agile Strategy Lab.
The Founder of the Lab at UNA and co-author of Strategic Doing: 10 Skills for Agile Leadership, Ed’s work has focused on developing new models of strategy specifically designed to accelerate complex collaboration in networks and open innovation. He is the original developer of Strategic Doing.