November 16, 2016

Go beyond traditional decision analysis

A central aspect of my approach to solving complex problems builds on the widespread agreement that effective problem solvers are T-shaped, with both depth and breadth of knowledge.

Develop a breadth of skills & knowledge

The breadth of knowledge—what I call strategic thinking—includes having sufficient exposure to other fields so that you can “steal” ideas from them through, for instance, analogical problem solving. Many people are quick to dismiss the value of strategic thinking, calling it the “soft skills” or the “weak methods,” or pointing out that problem solving in one discipline doesn’t translate to another.

For instance, one academic pointed to me that problem solving in the military is different than in medicine. This was an unfortunate choice: as luck would have it, Duncker’s radiation problem is an excellent example of how a military problem can inform a medical one. It goes like this: imagine that you must treat the tumor in a patient’s stomach. Any radiation of sufficient intensity to destroy the tumor will also destroy neighboring healthy tissue, which you want to avoid. How should you proceed? Duncker offered various alternatives (organized in the earliest issue map that I know of), one of which is to simultaneously project multiple low-intensity rays from various sources all converging on the tumor.

People who first read a military analogy—attacking a fortress in a countryside that is protected by minefields that are too dense to prevent a whole army to pass but not dense enough to prevent smaller groups to progress independently and group around the fortress—are significantly better at identifying that solution, thereby supporting the idea that a breadth of knowledge can be useful.

Decision analysis is a good start but just that, a start

Strategic thinking also includes transferrable skills: things that are useful while solving problems in various disciplines.

One such skill is an ability to make decisions. And, indeed, decision making is an integral part of solving complex problems: implicitly or explicitly, you have to decide along your resolution process: have I framed my problem appropriately? Is my diagnosis sufficiently precise? Is my elected solution an appropriate one?

Decision analysis, therefore, is a good skeleton for strategic thinking. But even it doesn’t explicitly address critical components of that horizontal dimension, such as the abilities to recognize and account for your own biases, to influence (through presentations or otherwise), to think creatively, to manage projects, and so on.

I recently gave a presentation at the Group for Research in Decision Analysis (GERAD), in Québec. It further explains these ideas and provides a general framework for solving comple




Bassok, M. and L. R. Novick (2012). Problem solving. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. K. J. Holyoak and R. G. Morrison. New York, Oxford University Press: 413-432.

Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving, Oxford University Press.

Gick, M. L. and K. J. Holyoak (1980). “Analogical problem solving.” Cognitive psychology 12(3): 306-355.


Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving