Dear Leaders

A weekly letter with actionable leadership ideas.

Bulletproof Problem Solving

By Hamza Shayk

Dear Leaders,

Given today’s fast-changing business environment, the Future of Jobs report placed complex problem-solving at #1 in its top 10 skills for 2020 and beyond.

An effective twenty-first-century executive is quick on their feet, possesses learning agility, and attacks emerging problems with confidence.

While there are plenty of problem-solving methodologies, one of the most effective ones that I use with my clients often is Bulletproof Problem Solving. It’s based on 30 years of problem-solving research by Charles Conn and Robert McLean and can be applied to any problem from strategic business decisions to global social challenges.

It is a simple, seven-step approach to creative problem-solving that is universally effective across industries:

1. Define the Problem:

When a problem’s context and boundaries aren’t fully described, there’s a lot of room for error. Arrive at a problem definition that is agreed upon by those involved in making a decision. Test the problem definition against several criteria:

a. That it is specific, not general.

b. That we can clearly measure success.

c. That the definition is bounded both in time-frame and by the values of the decision maker.

d. That it involves definitive action to be taken.

This step may appear constraining, but it leads to the clarity of purpose essential for good problem-solving.

2. Disaggregate the issues:

Once the problem is defined, simplify it by breaking it down into different component parts or issues. This provides further clarity on separate issues that make up the complex problem, and a chance to tackle one issue at a time instead of the entire problem at once.

3. Prioritize the issues:

Identify the issues with the biggest impact on the problem, including the ones you can most affect, and focus your initial attention on those. Prioritizing analyses helps you find the critical path to the answer efficiently, making the best use of your team’s time and resources.

4. Build a workplan and timetable:

Once the individual issues are defined and prioritized, link each part to a plan for fact gathering and analysis. This workplan and timetable assigns team members to analytic tasks with specific outputs and completion dates.

5. Conduct critical analyses:

This is usually the longest step of problem solving as it entails critically analyzing the data. For the sake of speed and simplicity, we start our analysis with simple heuristics – short cuts or rules of thumb – to get an order of magnitude understanding of each problem component, and to assess priorities quickly. This helps us understand where more work is needed, and especially when and where to use more complex analytic techniques.

To keep your executive team on a critical path, make frequent use of one-day answers that summarize best understanding in the form of situation, observations, and initial conclusions. Use the team review sessions to pressure-test these hypotheses.

6. Synthesize findings from the analysis:

Problem solving doesn’t stop at the point of reaching conclusions from individual analyses. Findings must be assembled into a logical structure to test validity, and synthesized in a way that convinces others that you have a good solution. Great team processes are also important at this stage.

7. Communicate in a compelling way:

From these conclusions, develop a storyline that links back to the problem statement and issues. A powerful communication is centered around a governing thought or argument that’s derived from your refined situation-observation-conclusion logic from earlier stages.

This is supported with your synthesized findings and assembled into component arguments that may follow inductive or deductive logic. It either leads with action steps or poses a series of questions that motivate action, depending on audience receptivity.

In Conclusion

In short, great problem solving consists of good questions that become sharp hypotheses, a logical approach to framing and disaggregating issues, strict prioritization to save time, solid team processes to foster creativity and fight bias, smart analytics always starting with heuristics, and, finally, a commitment to synthesizing findings and turning them into a story that galvanizes action.


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