Better Decision Making Through Reverse Story Problems

Better Decision Making Through Reverse Story Problems

As a kid, math was always one of my favorite subjects (I was a little strange that way). I appreciated that there was always exactly one right answer. Not like that pesky English class, where everything could be debated six ways from Sunday. (And now look at me, writing blog posts – if only my English teachers could see me now!) But what I didn’t realize then was that math is the key to better decision making.

Story problems were always among my favorite types of problems to solve. The basic structure of a story problem goes like this:

  • You read a story
  • The story contains some data
  • The story poses a question based on the data
  • You find the answer

But what few people (even adults) know is that modifying the story problem structure is one of the best ways to achieve better decision making skills in the workplace. And since your child has either already encountered or will encounter story problems, they should be able to grasp this concept for better decision making without too much trouble.

The New Story Problem Structure for Better Decision Making

The problem with modern business dilemmas is that leaders too often don’t know the real story. Sales dropped – or spiked – but why? The “why” part is the constant question among business leaders. If they can understand why things happened, they can make better decisions going forward.

So here’s the new structure for better decision making:

  • Ask the question
  • Gather the data
  • Craft the story
  • Provide the answer

Following these steps can completely change the course of a business. It’s not a magic wand, but it can be immensely helpful.

Ask the Question

The most basic question in business is “Why?” But there are certainly more complex forms of it. “Why is our sales conversion rate declining? Did something change?” These are the types of questions that business leaders must ask if they’re going to know where to steer the ship.

Even before the business world, kids benefit greatly from asking questions. Children are born with a natural curiosity, and it’s that inherent desire to understand their surroundings that needs to be cultivated. This can be difficult for parents who can get overwhelmed with “why” questions from their kids, but do your best to stick it out. They need to keep this curiosity to succeed in business.

Gather the Data

This is where many businesses fall short and even fail. In startups and small businesses, when a “why” question comes up the team typically turns to the person closest to the situation for an answer. And without data that person will answer based on their understanding – which may or may not be what’s actually happening. Data is often the only way to really see what’s going on in a business (though anecdotes and personal experiences certainly have their place as well).

Teach your kids to look at the data! And if the data isn’t available, teach them to ask for it, push for it, require it. It will make the whole business better, and they will see the career benefits from leading the charge.

Craft the Story

Once you have the data, you can begin to craft the story to find out what’s happening. Take for example the question above about falling conversion rates. If an executive asks a sales manager why conversion rates are falling on a product, and the sales manager doesn’t have any data, they may respond with something like, “Well, product X from competitor Y launched 3 months ago. I think the market is finally picking up on it. We’re losing sales when people compare our products.”

Things may look very different when you look at the data. You might actually find out that people are spending less time on that product’s webpage than they were 3 weeks ago. And when you try to understand why, you might realize that the pages are taking longer to load, so people are leaving before they even see all of the product content. Now you’ve got an entirely different kind of problem on your hands! Instead of a product problem, it’s a technical problem handled by a completely different team. Data is critical!

Provide the Answer

Once you’ve crafted the story, the answer is usually pretty straightforward. If pages are taking longer to load, the tech team needs to dig into the problem and fix it. Maybe it was a code change 3 weeks ago that’s causing longer page load times. So our vague and abstract question can now be answered with a direct and simple solution. But the data and the story were key components in finding the answer.

Ultimately the goal for better decision making is to answer a problem or a question. I think kids intuitively know that making decisions requires reasoning – even simple reasoning such as “I like blue better than yellow.” But as they grow and face more difficult questions, teach them to look at the data. Even the decision on which college to attend or which job to accept can be informed by data. Which school has higher employment placement rates post-graduation? Which school provides better value (i.e. ranks well with low tuition)? What’s the average cost of living for job X vs. job Y, and how does that compare with wages offered? All of these questions have numbers behind them, and those numbers will help them with better decision making overall. This is especially true when they know what goal they’re pursuing.

When kids learn to provide answers (based on stories crafted from data), they’ll be primed to add more value wherever they contribute. They’ll transition into leaders much more readily than their peers because they’ll have more confidence in their decisions.

Better Decision Making Starts Young

Kids won’t have all of these tools from the get-go. They’re going to need your guidance here. When they ask you a question about what to do, it may be a good opportunity to guide them through the reverse story problem steps above. Here’s an example:

“Dad, should I buy the Ninja Turtle toy, or the Transformers toy?”

“Well, which one do you like better?”

“I like both of them!” [In real life, the next question would be “Can I get both of them?”]

“Have you watched more Ninja Turtles, or Transformers?”

“Well, I’ve watched a lot of Transformers, but I’ve seen all the episodes of Ninja Turtles.”

“It sounds to me like you might like Ninja Turtles just a bit more than Transformers. So how about Ninja Turtles?”

This is a kid-friendly way to guide them through the process of better decision making. The question was which toy to buy. The data was how many episodes they’ve seen of each type. The story (which the child needed help to craft) was that they watch more Ninja Turtles, so it seems they like Ninja Turtles better. This story (based on data) helped them decide which toy to buy.

It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. The key is to guide them through the steps when they’re young so the the decision making process is more natural as an adult. And when they’ve got the process down, they’ll stand out no matter what they do. They’ll be more confident in their decision making and they’ll get it right a lot more often than they’ll get it wrong.

What other ways can parents help kids understand the reverse story problem process for better decision making? When have you used data to help your children with a decision? Let us know in the comments below!


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