The Zebra Effect: Do You Misclassify Your Problems?

In every aspect of life, we are faced with problems. Whether we are the cause of the problem or just confronted with it, we have to resolve them in one fashion or another. The first step in outlining how to attack an issue is to define the problem. And, this is where the majority of mistakes can be drawn back to – initial misclassification. There is an old saying that is just as relevant today as it was in the late 1940s when former University of Maryland professor Dr. Theodore Woodward coined the phrase.

“When you hear hoof beats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra.”

This idiom is referring to the idea of searching for outlandish explanations for common occurrences. Correlating to Sutton’s Law used in medical practices today, one should always consider the obvious when diagnosing a problem. Not every problem you experience is necessarily common, but first examine all characteristics of it as if it were. If it still doesn’t fit into the mold of other issues your business has faced, then consider more out-of-the-box explanations. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, chances are it isn’t a goose. Simplify your problems to get down to the essence of what you’re trying to define and then proceed based on its classification.

What are some ways you’ve seen the zebra effect within leadership? Let us know in the comments section below!

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