Problem solving & decision making


This site is about solving complex problems.

Problem solving is about going from where you are to where you want to be. Decision making is about choosing how you want to do it, so it is an integral part of the problem-solving process.

In that sense, we all are daily problem solvers / decision makers, so any improvement in our skills may result in major advancements in our professional and personal lives.

We’ll talk about complex, ill-defined and non-immediate (CIDNI) problems. Complex problems have components that are opaque and/or interdependent. Ill-defined problems are those where the information to solve them, the solution state and, for that matter, the problem itself might not be clear. ‘Non-immediate’ just means that you have at least a few days to solve your problem.

So CIDNI problems are large, challenging ones. 21st Century Grand Challenges are CIDNI problems. Popular examples also include curbing global warming, countering the diabetes epidemic, or providing clean drinking water. But CIDNI problems don’t have to be global. They can also be personal ones: a graduate student choosing her dissertation topic, a professional wondering whether to change careers, a young family deciding whether to buy a house all are examples of CIDNI problems.

Just like becoming a good tennis player, becoming an effective problem solver requires skills that you develop through forming habits. This site gives ideas on how to acquire these habits.

Structured problem solving in four steps

CIDNI problem solving is a four-step process that starts with defining the problem (making sure you are not focusing on just a symptom or a less critical problem).

Second, you need to diagnose it; that is, understand its root cause(s), which usually requires you to build a diagnostic issue tree.

Next you need to identify all the potential solutions—using a solution issue tree (a close parent of the more-known decision tree)—before deciding which one(s) you want to implement; a good way to do so is to use a decision matrix.

The final step is to execute the solution(s): convince the rest of your team/boss/client that the solution you picked is the right one, implement it, and monitor its effectiveness.

Click on any of the four images on the left to see more about that specific step.

Use this site to your advantage

Alternatively, you can read the latest ideas on problem solving a decision making, or you can jump to a specific key word by clicking it in the margin on the left. In particular, you may want to have a look at how to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE) in your thinking. You may also want to read about how to build issue trees / decision trees or how to use logic to improve your thinking and communication.

I’ve used this methodology on dozens of projects and coached people on hundreds more. Whether you are a business manager; a student starting a research project; a candidate to join one of the top strategy consultancies preparing a case interview; an intelligence analyst; or anyone else facing complex, ill-defined problems, the tools in this website will help you.