Going Back to Basics
You've likely had computer problems in the past. We all have at some point. But what did you do? Did you immediately call up the IT department in a panic? Or did you use the tried-and-tested method of "turning it off and on again"?
Often, this simple step can be enough to solve the problem. But imagine for just a moment that, instead of using it, a technician was sent out to look at your computer every time you encountered a problem. The enormous cost to your company, not to mention the time wasted, could make your job just about unworkable.
This is a prime example of a heuristic method at work. In other words, a simple, standard rule that we refer back to when we're problem solving.
What Are Heuristic Methods?
Heuristics are most commonly referred to as "rules of thumb," a term first thought to have been coined by Scottish preacher James Durham in his book, "Heaven Upon Earth," which was published in 1685. In it, Durham referred to "foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb."
This method of measurement has its origins in carpenters' ages-old habit of using the tip of their thumb to estimate an inch. In fact, in Dutch (along with several other European languages), the word for thumb – "duim" – also means inch.
Heuristic methods are reliable and convenient mental shortcuts that you can use to narrow down your options when you're faced with several different choices, to ease your cognitive load, or to solve problems.
Perhaps you're a hiring manager, and you decide to dismiss any résumés that contain spelling mistakes. Or maybe you're an office manager and you have to make an educated guess about the amount of stationery you need to order every month. In both instances, you are using an heuristic method to meet your objective.
However, it's also important to realize the limitations of heuristic methods. They are best used when the consequences of getting what you're doing wrong is relatively low. Certainly you might use a heuristic method to help you to sift through a big pile of résumés but, when it comes to making your final decision about who to recruit, greater deliberation and judgment will be needed.
Formalizing a Heuristic Method
Heuristic methods need to be formalized to be most useful to the organization as a whole. This raises them above the level of "gut instinct," and means that you can share them with your colleagues.
Whenever you find yourself calling on your experience to make a judgment, try to work out the rule of thumb that you used to find the solution. Find out what heuristics methods your team members employ as part of your use of explorative techniques such as Management By Walking Around and DILO (Day In the Life Of). Identify whether any of the methods that you discover could be applied elsewhere within your organization, and if they should even be incorporated into its formal procedures and guidelines.
Heuristic methods can also play an important role in your problem-solving processes. The straw man technique, for example, is similar in approach to heuristics, and it is designed to help you to build on or refine a basic idea. Another approach is to adapt the solution to a different problem to fix yours. TRIZ is a powerful methodology for adopting just such an approach, and is a great source of reliable, experience-based problem-solving approaches.
It can be helpful to incorporate the heuristic methods that you have discovered into a checklist for newer employees. This way, they can learn from the tried-and-tested knowledge that has been accumulated by their more experienced colleagues.
Such checklists can also be used to refine your decision-making process. For example, in the food industry, the following heuristic checklist might help the product development team to decide whether it's worth test marketing a new pie:
- Does the pie look appetizing in its packaging?
- Can it be packaged so that it won't be damaged in transit?
- Can it be cooked in under 20 minutes, so that busy people will buy it?
- Does it have a shelf life of at least five days from manufacture to expiration date?
This type of list is based on previous product development processes, and on market research. Of course, there's no guarantee that a pie that meets all of these criteria will be successful. But the checklist can help the development team to make a quick "go/no-go" decision, before moving on to the next stage of product development.
The Disadvantages of Using Heuristics
Heuristics are best used when the benefits of making a quick decision outweigh the potential risk of oversimplifying the problem. Remember that heuristics are not about precision, but about having a rough idea of the problem. When you need a more precise answer, you'll need to use a more comprehensive tool. See our problem solving and decision making sections for more than 80 of these, which all focus on different situations.
Heuristic methods are also a great "jumping-off" point when you or your team are brainstorming but, again, you'll likely need to follow a more detailed and formal procedure when you come to refine your ideas.
The temptation to use mental shortcuts to solve problems and make decisions can be great, particularly if we are under a lot of pressure or have heavy workloads. But cutting corners consistently can lead us to miss important solutions, mishandle problem resolution, and can make us prone to cognitive bias. (The TDODAR decision-making process can help you make good decisions in these situations.)
Instead of rushing to a conclusion that is based on an easy mental shortcut, assess whether the problem is high or low risk. If it is high risk, a more rigorous, knowledge-based approach will likely be needed.
Heuristics, or "rules of thumb," are problem-solving methods that are based on practical experience and knowledge. They allow you to use a "quick fix" to solve a minor problem or to narrow down options. They're also a great "jumping-off" point for brainstorming or exploring new ideas.
However, remember to be aware of the limitations of heuristic methods. They shouldn't be applied in situations where inaccuracy carries a high degree of risk, or where the consequences of getting things wrong are significant.