Chances are, you are solving the wrong problem.
Nothing personal, dear reader, as I wholeheartedly trust your instincts and impeccable judgement, but it happens to the best of us.
We all solve the wrong problem
Case in point: I’ve coached over 200 people to solve complex problems in the past five years. Not a single one decided, after thinking for a couple of weeks about the problem they brought, that their original formulation was the right one. Not one.
Working for Accenture had its ups and downs, but one great, great up was a simple idea: help others be successful.
Thinking about it after so many years, there are a couple of instances that stem out:
Decision making is a critical part of the problem-solving process. But it is also only that: a part. The process has several others; don’t overlook some at the expense of others. (This post is a summary of a guest article I did for Weighted Decision Matrices, the original is available here.)
The resolution process of CIDNI problems is sequential, with decision making appearing only within the third step. A decision matrix can be useful to decide between various competing solutions, but that decision is only as good as the ground work that prepared it.
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Integrate decision making into your overall problem-solving approach
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My good friend and mentor, stochastic processes über-guru Pol Spanos, has many wise sayings. One is: intuition is a good servant but a terrible master.
In other words, check your assumptions.
An integral part of problem solving is the first step in our four-step process: define the problem. You have to define the right problem.
Think about a painting; the frame is a critical part of it, because it delimits what is part of the art piece and what is part of the outside world. Placing that limit might be difficult for the artist but it’s an essential part of the art piece. The same goes for solving problems. (Following that analogy, I’ll use ‘define’ and ‘frame’ interchangeably.)
Citing Baddeley (2003)*, the Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning defines working memory as ‘the ability to maintain and manipulate information in short-term memory while resisting interference’.
“Have the breadth to see the problems, and the depth to solve them.”
— Anonymous (as reported in Tomorrow’s Professor by Richard Reis)
Think of problem solving as the combination of divergent and convergent thinking. When answering a ‘how can we do this’ question, you should first consider various alternatives. That’s the divergent part, where you strive to consider all possible ways to answer the question.
Then you look at each alternative in detail, and test the one(s) that you think will work. That’s the convergent part.
If you are in a managerial position, you should be concerned about how to get the best people to your team and how to help them do their job optimally.
A recent publication from the National Research Council looked at how the intelligence community functions and proposed some changes. Here are highlights from their chapter dedicated to the workforce.
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Change how you recruit, train, and evaluate people
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Whenever you’re facing a new, complex problem to solve, step back and reflect on your general approach from a philosophical point of view: are you aiming at solving it completely straight from the beginning or are you integrating a learning curve?
Perhaps the most complicated problem ever solved was to put a man on the Moon, and maybe we can learn something from NASA’s approach.
Chances are that sooner or later you will be leading a problem-solving team. When you do, make sure that you use the right leadership style.
Just as there isn’t a single golf club that’s optimal for all shots, there isn’t one leadership style that is most effective in all situations. Instead, you must adapt your style depending on the skills and confidence of your team to do the task in hand. This is called situational leadership; it was first developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in Management of Organizational Behavior (now in its 9th edition). Here is a variation of it.