Analyze to get to the root of the problem

In 1997, my brother Jack who is an archaeologist at Missouri State University began work excavating a site in Missouri called Big Eddy. His work was documented in National Geographic in October of 2005. A unique experiment he and his colleague, Neal Lopinot, conducted in 2000 was chronicled in the journal American Antiquity in 2007.

At Big Eddy successive layers of artifacts were laid down from 500 to 11,300 years ago. In 1999, small flaked and battered pebbles were found in the deepest levels of the excavation. Although initially puzzled as to why some of the small pebbles appeared to be flaked, Jack formulated a hypothesis that the small pebbles were chipped by the foot traffic of mastodons, the most common megafaunal species in the Ozarks 15,000 years ago. To test this hypothesis, Jack and Neal traveled to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri and excavated a pit about five feet long by three feet wide to a depth of about three inches, lined it with plastic, and filled it with unmodified pebbles and cobbles retrieved from the deepest portions of the Big Eddy site.

Of course, no mastodons were available for the experiment so they used the next best thing. They secured two Asian elephants from the zoo weighing from 6,760 to 7,950 pounds, which were about the size of mastodons. Handlers were employed to walk them back and forth over the pebbled-filled pit fifty times. The elephants’ feet hit the pit about two times on each round.

After the gravel in the pit was recovered and inspected, Jack found that five percent of the pebbles in the experimental pit had been flaked by the elephants and that they were remarkably similar to the specimens found in the deepest levels at the Big Eddy site. The experimental results indicated that trampling by ice age giants was likely the cause of the naturally flaked artifact-like pebbles, which Jack and Neal called zoofacts.

This project was an example of experimental archaeology and is somewhat unique in the field. This whole endeavor was very interesting to me. Jack and Neil had a problem to be solved so they invented and carried out an experiment. The experiment led to a plausible explanation and informed opinion as to how the ancient flaked pebbles were created.

The best leaders I have known went through similar processes. When the unexplained occurred, they gathered data and created experiments to understand the nature of the problem. As a result they were able to implement a solution and gather more data over time. Their experiments were not necessarily controlled or scientific. They were simply trying the best option and measuring the results. Every problem has more than one solution. Good leaders are determined to test solutions until the problem is solved.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.