“We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” - Robert Wilensky
I was asked to observe a group of people today who have been tasked with solving a particular problem but who up to this point seemed unable to solve the problem despite the amount of time invested in it and despite glowing references of their past successes.
After watching them participate in a fascinating but pointless stream-of-consciousness session for about an hour (I was asked to observe, not participate), I asked my client if they had ever heard of the one million (or infinite) monkeys theorem:
A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time, or an infinite number of monkeys hitting keys at random, will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.
When they indicated that they had, I commented that they were observing the theorem in practice and that if they had an infinite amount of time, they would eventually hit upon a solution.
They weren’t happy to hear this but they had asked me to tell them what they needed to hear and not what they wanted to hear.
More and more often I see people and organizations attempting to solve problems using random execution with no awareness regarding end goals, intentions, objectives, resource availability, resource leveraging, environ concerns, constraints, deadlines, etc. Many people don’t seem to know why these elements matter (despite their vehement protests to the contrary) nor do they seem to know how to create the strategic and tactical roadmaps that illustrates how one gets “from here to there”.
It is certainly not for lack of available information. We are overloaded and overwhelmed with theories, best practices, methodologies, frameworks and the like for how to solve most problems.
The reasons for inappropriate or inadequate problem solving are many and diverse. A quick Google search reveals a bazillion theories as to why such problems exist and how to compensate for or nullify them. I can cite a number of cute sayings, expressions, theories and cartoons (I am guilty of having done so on occasion) as to why this problem is still so pervasive.
But for all the explanations out there, there is something that I don’t see enough people talking about.
It’s in how problem solvers are evaluated and selected
For many organizations, their quick-hit interview or selection processes don’t objectively determine whether the person or organization being considered can actually solve problems consistently. A candidate’s past performance in solving problems may be based on luck or specific context as much it was on process and knowledge and therefore asking a few questions or asking people to fill out an exhaustive (or exhausting) RFP often doesn’t differentiate between luck and predictable consistency.
It’s like the worthlessness of many of the “top x under x” designations that many people seem to tout, impressive sounding until you realize that for many of them, their ability to win the moniker was based as much on how well they self-assessed themselves as it was on any measurable criteria.
And so the next time you are selecting candidates to solve large, complex or high profile problems, you can entertain yourself with glossy brochures, slick presentations, self-professed “intellectual giants”, worthless, pie-in-the-sky “what was the toughest problem you ever solved” questions, goofy (pointless) “who’s the smartest hominid in the room” questions, questionable “one size does not fit all” psych evaluations or massive but often meaningless RFP processes …. or … you can pick up one of your toughest problems, march it over to a candidate’s facility, throw it on the table and observe how they tackle it.
Doing the latter will often provide better insight than the former as to whether you are hiring problem solvers or a million monkeys.
If you think you don’t have the time to do this, you might be kicking yourself at some point as you wait for words of wisdom to emerge from the monkey house. While your problems won’t be solved, the upside is that you can pay them in bananas. The downside is that some people may consider you (and not the people you hired) to be the biggest monkey of all.
And unless monkey business is your business, I don’t think the downside is what you really want.
What do you think?
In service and servanthood,
The Bottom Line
The quality and effort invested in your evaluation process must always be commensurate with the scale and impact of the problem you are trying to solve. The crop you harvest is always reflected in the quality of the seeds that you sow and how you nurture them, not just the length of the growing season.
This blog was written with the encouragement of the client in question. No clients were injured in the writing of this blog. :-)