How watching football can bring out your inner scientist

October 1, 2008

By Michael B. Tatham

It’s that time of year again, when leaves turn different colours, the temperature drops and days get shorter. It’s also that time of year when we gather together to celebrate the season.

Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking….

That’s right: Sunday afternoon football.

Trust me, there’s nothing better than sitting down in front of your brand new, high-def big-screen TV; beer in one hand, remote control in the other to watch some sports. Except there’s one small detail: this year you bought a new system so to watch the game, you will need to hook it up.

Hooking up a TV can’t be that hard, right?

You start by matching all the right cables as shown in the diagram and you get audio, but no picture.

You can feel the impatience mounting, but you take a swig of beer and check your watch for game time: no problem, ten minutes to go.

So, you decide to experiment. Maybe the TV is set to the wrong input? You switch to other inputs. No good.

Ok, perhaps the cable is not pushed in hard enough and there is no connection. You push them all in and still nothing.

Maybe the wire isn’t in the right place? You take out the diagram once again and try to match all the wires, but you were right the first time.

This is painful. All you want to do is watch some football and this system is not cooperating. Is that really too much to ask for?!

Patience and Process

In my experience, this is when most people abandon all efforts. Lucky for me, I’ve learned how to  experiment successfully and find the root cause of a problem. But I’ve had years of practice in experimentation. The problem is that for many people, the mere mention of a controlled experiment causes a cold chill. That kind of stuff is for scientific people right? In the science world, you need a PhD to do experiments. In the business world, experimentation is reserved for certified Six Sigma black belts. And frankly, all that experimentation stuff is really complicated, right?


Experimentation is a skill anybody can learn. You don’t need a fancy degree or an MBA. What you need is patience and the discipline of following a process.

I was curious to see what other people had to say on the topic, so I decided to poll my friends about how often they experiment. The result was split 50/50. They either shrugged their shoulders or admitted they experimented quite frequently.

For some, finding the root cause of a problem was quite simple, but for others it required a lot of discipline and time. And as we got further into the discussion it occurred to me that even if they fixed the problem, it was not because they had discovered the root cause, but rather, because they had randomly experimented with different solutions and managed to find one that worked.

The problem with implementing solutions without finding a root cause

Here’s a case in point: let’s for a moment get back to our football game. Say you unplugged a few wires and plugged them back in again while looking at the TV to see if the picture came up. At the same time you changed the output. We call this a multi-variable experiment. (Translation: very, very complex and difficult to successfully execute.) Suddenly one of the ten actions you did makes the game appear! Let’s celebrate right?!  Well yes, because you get to watch the game. But no, because you still don’t know what caused the picture to appear.

You might be thinking, ‘so what?’ The problem is fixed and you are the hero of the day. And frankly, it’s not like entertainment systems are your profession. If you thought that, you’d be missing the point. The problem with putting in a solution where the root cause is unknown, is that it has a funny way of coming back to haunt you at the worst possible time. Like for instance during Super Bowl. Or year end for that matter.

Experimenting at home is the same as experimenting at work

I see this same kind of approach to solving business problems day in, day out. I can’t tell you how often I have seen managers get their people mobilized to find a quick fix to a problem that has been reoccurring every quarter!

Each time the problem resurfaces, the demands for a quick and painless fix increase, which in turn, forces people to experiment with solutions.

Proper experimentation means controlling each variable so that we can ‘turn the defect on, or off’. In other words, if you can re-create the problem, then you have earned the right to implement a solution. We say you’ve earned that right, because you know it’s the RIGHT solution.

If we go back to our home entertainment system – before we lost patience and discipline – we would likely be able to experiment with one variable at a time to find the root cause, implement a solution and not have to worry about the problem ever coming back again.

Focusing on one variable at a time

Ok, so we’re back in front of the TV, armed with very important knowledge: we need to focus on one variable at a time. Perhaps the root cause of the video not showing was a defective video cord? So we try a new cord, plugged into the same place. Nope, that’s not it. Maybe its a defective port? We plug the old cord into input 2 and see what happens. Yes!! We have a picture!

Now we double check: input 1, no picture. Back to input 2, there’s a picture. (At Tatham, we suggest that if you can replicate the defect 3 times, you’ve found the root cause.) Now that we know the root cause is a defective port, we can happily plug it into input 2 and call the repair people.

Remember: if you know the process that creates the problem, then it is very easy to design a process to prevent it. And there’s nothing better than knowing you can still watch Super Bowl, even if Rosie your cleaning lady, accidentally unplugged the wires.