Solvable — A three step process to solve complex problems

Solvable — A three step process to solve complex problems

Sep 19, 2022

We all solve problems everyday. And yet, effective problem-solvers are in short supply in all organizations, even at the top. This is what got me into researching how we can become better problem solvers, and writing my first book. Having since moved to IMD and collaborated extensively with my colleague and good friend Albrecht Enders, we’ve captured our thinking in a new book, Solvable. Here’s a brief intro.Out of the many kinds of problems that organizations face daily, executives struggle most with CIDNI problems—complex, ill-defined, and non-immediate ones. These are the most convoluted challenges, those that make you lose sleep at night: What should be our take a stance on social issues? What should be our work-from-home policy? How do we fight climate change? Should I change jobs? The problems are hard and the stakes are high; feeling stressed already?At its core, a problem is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. That's simple enough. But often with complex problems the perceived problem is not the actual problem. That is, with complex problems, it’s easy to mistake a symptom for the underlying pain, which can become a costly mistake to fix down the line.

Ok, so what?

What's keeping you away from better problem solving?

Albrecht and I have spoken with countless executives, observed groups, coached teams, and surveyed the literature. In that process, we noted some recurring negative tendencies that undermine effective problem solving.

First, executives often frame their problems poorly. Look no criticism, here: A problem is often uncomfortable, so the moment we realize we have a problem, we switch to solution mode. In short, we jump to solutions.

That's a first mistake. Instead of going straight to whatever occurs to us, there’s value in first clearly defining the problem. Do you want to increase revenues, boost profitability, or maximize return on investment? All those are interrelated problem statements—in this case, nested—but focusing on one or another has tremendous implications. That sound logical enough, right? And yet.

During a two-year study at IMD, we asked 800 leaders to share the prevalent issues that they observe in their organizations during problem-solving. Almost 60% reported framing issues. These results are consistent across geographies, industries, and seniority levels. Let me emphasize: a majority of executives identify that poor framing is prevalent. Scary, right? Well, it gets worse.

Equally problematic (also reported by 60% of executives) is the poor engagement of stakeholders in the problem-solving process. Decision makers often do not engage enough—although in some organizations it is the opposite—or do not engage effectively. Not engaging your stakeholders appropriately will get you burned, either through the problem-solving process or the implementation.

FrED, a three-step process to better solutions for complex problems.

3 steps to the rescue – Follow FrED to better problem solving

If solving complex problems can be, well, complex, it can also be structured. Maybe each complex problem deserves a tailored solution but the process to get to that solution doesn't have to be an one off. It can be systematized. In short, you complex problem solving doesn’t require dark magic. An effective solution process that we’ve tried over thousands of projects drills down to three steps; meet FrED.

FrED stands for Frame, Explore, Decide. FrED acknowledges that deciding is important—perhaps even central to problem solving—but the formal decision should not come until later in a sequence. Delaying the decision helps us avoid jumping to solutions, implementing whichever solution occurs to us without first testing whether "most obvious" equates to "most desirable"—spoiler alert: in our experience it seldom does. FrED is also a great way to overcome paralysis by analysis—the other extreme of the spectrum, where we delay making a decision because we want more information—without realizing that our window of opportunity vanishes.

Framing answers, What’s my problem?

Framing helps us clearly define the problem, what it is and—equally important—what it isn’t. Again, that might sound trivial; it isn’t. As we've seen, a majority of executives report poor framing as the major pitfall they experience or observe. Also, working with many senior leaders, we know that framing effectively takes some effort.

Luckily, the effectiveness of your framing effort can be greatly improved following a few ideas. One of those is to synthesize your problem into a single question, which we call the ‘quest’. Solvable gives you practical tools for framing, including the key elements of great quests: the hero, treasure, and dragon.

Exploring answers, How may I solve my problem?

When it comes to looking for potential solutions, we often let “that’s the way we’ve always done it here” dictate our thinking. Or perhaps we’re afraid to look silly if we offer creative solutions that are just too “out there.” Or maybe we have biases at work (another spoiler alert, remove the “maybe” in that phrase). What Albrecht and I observed, though, is that executives often restrict themselves far too much when considering potential solutions for their problems. If, however, we can overcome this restrictive tendency to consider problems in a wider frame, we drastically improve our chance to identify valuable solutions.

Exploring, we give ourselves license to look for solutions beyond the obvious ones. We enable ourselves to consider “dumb” ideas, in the hope that they might be not so dumb after all or that they can help us find some that are not so dumb. We spend some of our limited resource capital to test counterfactuals, to ask “what if” and “what else” questions. Exploring, we also apply these same divergent thinking tools to critically question what our decision criteria should be, so we identify what's of value in the solution to us and to the stakeholders involved.

Deciding answers, How should I solve my problem?

By having front loaded our decision with robust framing and exploration, we’ve given ourselves better alternatives to choose from. So, we’re now ready to step into the final stage of FrED, where we decide which of the alternatives is on balance the best suited for our challenge. This also enables us to rethink parts of our analysis, to run sensitivity analyses, to further explore the tradeoffs associated with each alternative.

A virtuous circle

Although FrED’s three steps appear linear, in practice your thinking will evolve as new evidence should lead you to update earlier conclusions. Let me emphasize: changing your opinion in light of new evidence is a good thing. Solving complex problems, you’re not in the business of demonstrating that you were right from the beginning. Leave that to insecure politicians. Rather, you’re in the business of following the evidence to become less wrong.

That means that you’ll often need to change your conclusions midway through the process, come back to earlier milestones and update your thinking.

In practice, we often don’t start with framing. Often a conversation with a colleague or a family member slowly morph into a shouting match about the respective merits of one alternative over another, for instance. Here’s the thing, though, instead of just continuing but shouting louder (yeah, when has that really changed anybody’s opinion!?), train yourself to realize that you're solving a complex problem and that, therefore, you’d benefit from proper framing, exploring, and deciding. Putting a stop the shouting match, that’s the hard part. Then, FrED makes it easy for you. Well, at least FrED makes it easier for you. You can use our dedicated problem-solving tool, DragonMaster to systematically go through the three steps. A word of caution, though: FrED is simple but following it won't always be easy. This is why Solvable is packed with practical ideas to help you Frame, Explore, and Decide effectively.

Solving complex problems is hard, but it doesn’t to be as hard as most of us make it. Adopting a structured approach can help you. So, happy solving, and let me know how’s that is working for you!