Great problem solvers are made, not born. That’s what McKinsey found after decades of problem solving with leaders across business, nonprofit, and policy sectors. Six mutually reinforcing approaches underly their success:
Being Ever Curious
A simple technique, worth employing at the beginning of problem solving, is simply to pause and ask why conditions or assumptions are so until you arrive at the root of the problem.
Natural human biases in decision making, including confirmation, availability, and anchoring biases, often cause us to shut down the range of solutions too early. Better—and more creative—solutions come from being curious about the broader range of potential answers.
Put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This small artifice is surprisingly powerful: it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence.
Tolerate Ambiguity and Stay Humble!
Most good problem solving has a lot of trial and error. We form hypotheses, porpoise into the data, and then surface and refine (or throw out) our initial guess at the answer. This above all requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity.
To embrace imperfectionism with epistemic humility, start by challenging solutions that imply certainty. You can do that by asking questions such as “What would we have to believe for this to be true?” This brings to the surface implicit assumptions about probabilities and makes it easier to assess alternatives.
When uncertainty is high, see if you can make small moves or acquire information at a reasonable cost to edge out into a solution set. Perfect knowledge is in short supply, particularly for complex business and societal problems.
Embracing imperfection can lead to more effective problem solving. It’s practically a must in situations of high uncertainty, such as the beginning of a problem-solving process or during an emergency.
Take a Dragonfly-Eye View
Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light. The idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception.
Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar tropes into which our pattern-recognizing brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify threats or opportunities beyond the periphery of vision.
The secret to developing a dragonfly-eye view is to “anchor outside” rather than inside. Take the broader ecosystem as a starting point. That will encourage you to talk with customers, suppliers, or, better yet, players in a different but related industry or space. Going through the customer journey with design-thinking in mind is another powerful way to get a 360-degree view of a problem. But take note: when decision makers face highly constrained time frames or resources, they may have to narrow the aperture and deliver a tight, conventional answer.
Pursue Occurrent Behavior
Occurrent behavior is what actually happens in a time and place, not what was potential or predicted behavior. Complex problems don’t give up their secrets easily. But that shouldn’t deter problem solvers from exploring whether evidence on the facets of a solution can be observed or running experiments to test hypotheses.
You can think of this approach as creating data rather than just looking for what has been collected already. It’s critical for new market entry—or new market creation. It also comes in handy should you find that crunching old data is leading to stale solutions.
The mindset required to be a “restless experimenter” is consistent with the notion in start-ups of “failing fast.” It means that you get product and customer affirmation or rejection quickly through beta tests and trial offerings.
Don’t take a lack of external data as an impediment—it may actually be a gift, since purchasable data is almost always from a conventional way of meeting needs and is available to your competitors too. Your own experiments allow you to generate your own data; this gives you insights that others don’t have.
Tap into Collective Intelligence and the Wisdom of the Crowd
In an ever-changing world where conditions can evolve unpredictably, crowdsourcing invites the smartest people in the world to work with you.
Accept that it’s OK to draw on diverse experiences and expertise other than your own. Start with brainstorming sessions that engage people from outside your team. Try broader crowdsourcing competitions to generate ideas. Or bring in deep-learning talent to see what insights exist in your data that conventional approaches haven’t brought to light. The broader the circles of information you access, the more likely it is that your solutions will be novel and creative.
“Show and Tell” to Drive Action
Show and tell is how you connect your audience with the problem and then use combinations of logic and persuasion to get action.
The show-and-tell mindset aims to bring decision makers into a problem-solving domain you have created.
Rookie problem solvers show you their analytic process and mathematics to convince you that they are clever. That’s sometimes called APK, the anxious parade of knowledge. But seasoned problem solvers show you differently. The most elegant problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. The late economist Herb Simon put it this way: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”
To get better at show and tell, start by being clear about the action that should flow from your problem solving and findings: the governing idea for change. Then find a way to present your logic visually so that the path to answers can be debated and embraced. Present the argument emotionally as well as logically. Show why the preferred action offers an attractive balance between risks and rewards. But don’t stop there. Spell out the risks of inaction, which often have a higher cost than imperfect actions have.
Conn, Charles.McLean, Robert. Six problem-solving mindsets for very uncertain times. McKinsey. September 15, 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/six-problem-solving-mindsets-for-very-uncertain-times