Why Structured Problem Solving?

Why Structured Problem Solving?


Why are we never taught to problem solve?

I can see most of you stop and stare for a second as your process this question. Every single day we solve problems. Simple problems like changing lanes as we drive down the street. What to eat for dinner? What to get your husband for his birthday?

Complex problems like making a career move. What new car to buy? What to do with my savings?

So why the hell have we not been trained to problem solve…?

(And, no, the average human's use of “mind-mapping” is actually more of an exercise in using coloured pens than it is a problem solving tool or methodology)

Think about it. Through all of your elementary schooling, high school, college, university, even most corporate training I have seen – I cannot put my finger on one aspect of my education that explicitly sought to teach me to solve problems.

What does 2 + 2 equal? Differential calculus and diffusion theory. Conducting chemical experiments or dropping two balls of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Piza. The scientific method of creating and testing hypotheses. History lessons with that horrid cat lady. I learnt a lot and gained many different perspectives, but none of my subjects sought to address these core problem solving questions:

How does one effectively solve problems? What are the principles and philosophies of good problem solving? What is in a good problem solving toolkit?

Well, obviously, these are not simple questions to answer. But a significant amount of contemporary thinking has gone into problem solving, innovation, design and continuous improvement. What I would like to present here are some practical thoughts and reflections that I have pulled from many years in the strategic problem solving game, and exposure to a number of frameworks and methodologies.

But first, a dipstick into your current problem solving approach!

Think of a sports team that isn’t doing very well. Football, soccer, rugby, netball, hockey, any sport.

Now, take 5 min and a piece of paper and answer the following:

“Why are the  [Boston Red Sox] not winning matches?”







Give it a go. It’s important.








Right, welcome back. What answer did you come up with?


Now take 2 min to reflect on the process you took. How did you come up with those answers? Brainstorming a list? Did you try draw a mind map?

With 99% of the people I have ever done this exercise with, listing possible solutions is the immediate response. A handful will start putting together mind maps. But the vast majority of individuals and teams immediately jump into listing possible reasons and solutions (bad coaching; low morale; bad pay; etc).

Not once has anyone responded: “Hang on, Tom, that question is a little vague…” What exactly are the criteria for success? What time frames are we talking about? Can I phone a friend? Do you want me to give you ways we can approach the problem? Research we could do?

Every single time I get frenzied list-making-brain-storming of possible answers. Every single time.

Western Society rewards solutions. It rewards proposals. “Bring me solutions, not problems!” is the corporate mantra of the modern manager. Our education systems similarly demand the answer. To the extent that some models don’t even award points / marks for workings or intermediate steps. There certainly is a place for answers and solutions. The problem, in my mind, is that 100% of the focus is on the end point. The answer. The output. The impact. The result. Nobody talks about the journey. Hell, nobody even problem solves what the journey should look like.

In business, the correct answer of “How to get from New York to San Francisco?” is “United Airlines flight 1920 for 5 hours and 55 min”.


It depends on why you are going and what you wish to achieve! Let’s have a chat about that and then we will figure out whether we are flying, driving, sailing, taking a train or hot air balloon, running or skateboarding!

We too often shortcut to “hop on a flight” when it comes to business problem solving!

Before I go any further, I want to take a minute to quickly unpack the different elements of problem solving. In my mind, there are three different problem solving pillars that we draw on when looking for solutions:

  • Conceptual Problem Solving (The Artist, Designer or Marketer)

Think abstract thinking. This is the part of problem solving that draws on creativity, divergence, drawing analogies, finding the holistic aspects of the problem, and goes beyond the basic relationships between the various aspects of the problem.

  • Analytical Problem Solving (The Engineer)

Think logic. Being able to break apart a problem into logical parts. Finding practical relationships between elements of the problem. Figuring out the building blocks

  • Quantitative Problem Solving (The Mathematician)

Think maths and data. What are the numbers to back this up? How many people do I need to survey to get a representative sample? What analysis should I do to find out the statistical or mathematical relationship between these parts – a regression? A histogram?

These elements of problem solving seldom work in isolation! We generally draw on all three elements in different degrees depending on where we are in the process and what aspect of the problem we are considering.

To use a simple example: You love shoes and decide to open up a shoe company.

Conceptual Problem Solving: What kind of shoes should I make? How should they look? How should they function? How do I build a brand that shows the market what I have to offer and positions me effectively amongst competitors? Which stores will stock my shoes?

Analytical Problem Solving: What does the manufacturing process entail? What materials do I need? What machinery? How do I get my shoes out to my customers / stores?

Quantitative Problem Solving: How much should I charge my customers? How much revenue can I make in the first three years? How much capital do I need to have / raise to set this business up?

Im sure, if you think about the three elements and a complex problem you have or are solving, you can plot the heat map of where you are going to draw on the different elements, in different degrees, depending on the aspect of the problem you are solving.

Awareness of these elements is helpful in that I will be referring to them as we proceed.

So, then, what are the philosophies, aspects and disciplines of good problem solving?

If you think about a time that you or your team came up with a great solution to a problem, what made it a great solution?

A great solution is:

  • Impactful – it solves the problem, creates value, changes things for the better
  • Innovative – it includes fresh thinking and new insights
  • Creative – holistically takes into account hard and soft aspects and incorporates “out of the box” thinking
  • Logical and fact based

Great – thanks Tom. But how the £$@^ do we achieve that?!?!

Thankfully there are a number of Problem Solving Toolkits at your disposal. Im going to introduce you to the tools that I have found most useful and refer you on to other sources and frameworks.

But first, my disclaimer: As with any and all opinions and viewpoints – these are the tools that have worked for me. With practice and experience, I have found them to be very effective. Given your unique personality, style, organisation or problem, other tools, frameworks and metholodogies may work better for you. There is no right or wrong! Try them all, use them all, master them all with practice and experience and expand your thinking and problem solving effectiveness!

My Problem Solving toolbox has three compartments:

1.     Knowledge, Judgement and Discipline

2.     Mindsets and capabilities

3.     Methodology and frameworks

Drawing on tools in the different compartments at different times in the problem solving process will help you follow a more robust and holistic process and, basically, come up with better solutions!

I am focusing on Mindsets and Capabilities in this article – I unpack the McKinsey 7 Step methodology in step-specific articles. Knowledge and Judgement are shorter aspects at the end of this article.


Knowledge, Judgement and Discipline

Knowledge of business, systems, people and processes are vital in good problem solving. NOTE: It does not say technical knowledge. Obviously to design the most effective network to carry data from office A to Headoffice takes technical knowledge of systems and networks. However, making Office A an effective office does not.

Draw off the knowledge and experience of the team. Build a team with a variety of knowledge bases and experience to enrich your perspectives. Use external experts. Use frontline staff.

You don’t need an MBA to understand the different elements of business. Have a quick flick through the numerous business website like the Harvard Business Review or get a copy of the 10 Day MBA. Having a broad understanding of what makes things tick will help you be more holistic in your conceptual problem solving and draw better linkages in your analytical problem solving.

  • Good business judgement is critical to accelerate the process and build impactful solutions. Figuring out what is important; what has the most impact; what are red herrings – early in the process will help you and your team stay focussed on what really matters and use your time and energy effectively.
  • Good judgement does not mean jumping to conclusions and chasing hypotheses blindly. Good judgement informs and compliments the process and should be backed up by fact, data, case studies, etc.
  • Good judgement can come from experienced and wise business people, consultants, research, case studies, good analytics. 

Problem solving discipline is fundamental to building holistic, robust and impactful solutions.

Short cutting the process is dangerous. Hierarchy can result in pet projects or solutions based on political agendas rather than fact. Having the discipline to use the right methodology, gain the right input and feedback and use the tools will ensure that you have real lasting impact through your solutions.

Use process. Use peer accountability. Use carefully chosen project sponsors. Use the tools. Be disciplined in your approach.


Mindsets and Capabilities

There are a couple of mental disciplines (mindsets) that you should draw off during the process. Often, it is very difficult to do this as a single person.


Build a team. Use a team. Use experts. Use your friends. Use your mom. Talk to your dog. Collaborate. We all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses. We all have our own unique experiences and perspectives on the world. The more we can draw off of others’ relevant views, experiences, focus areas and input – the more holistic our view becomes and the more robust and thoughtful the solution becomes. Collaboration is not easy! It is not just about asking for feedback on a proposed solution!

Collaboration can be dramatically enhanced by:

  • Using a common problem solving methodology so others know where you are in the process (and that you are actually using a process)
  • Using problem solving tools through the process to efficiently get your thinking out there (thinking – not solutions!!!) so other people can quickly see how you are approaching the problem and get on the same page quickly - without being drawn into your perspective and conflicted in the process
  • Having an open mind and eliciting input and feedback throughout the process. Honing your communication skills to enhance collaboration.

See my article(s) on the Enneagram framework and Myers-Briggs for more insight on how to engage with different personalities and what view points or focus areas your can generally expect to find out there.

Consciously diverge and converge

Problem solving involves gathering information and perspectives, and, then, synthesizing those into conclusions and “so whats” to shape a solution. Problem solving is iterative! We diverge and converge – learning things. We then take those learnings and diverge and converge again with focus on other aspects or greater focus on certain aspects. And, again, come back with lessons. We do this over and over until we distil the best solution given the learnings or the favourable solution given the trade offs between solutions.

Giving yourself the license to diverge is important. As we saw earlier, jumping to solutions is a fundamental western world affliction. It takes hard work and discipline (and some tools) to allow ourselves to diverge and explore and release judgement of whether what we are learning along the way is “right or wrong” or “good or bad” in terms of input and / or solutions.

Chill! Diverge enough. Then converge enough. Then diverge again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Collaborate. Use tools to help you determine how much diverging is enough (see Issue Analysis in this article and in a separate article). How much is enough? See 4. Judgement.

Use Top-down and Bottom-up approaches

Looking at a problem at a macro level and at a micro level can help you be more holistic in your thinking. Let me give you an example using two random images pulled off Google. If I showed you the following and asked you the question: “What makes a city?” what would your response look like?

(Please remember to visitbrisbane.com.au …)

Aspects that picture highlights are things such as:

  • People
  • Culture
  • Restaurants
  • Entertainment
  • Fashion
  • Relationships
  • Ethnic groups
  • Lights and architectural beauty


Now take a look at this picture:


So, now I’m thinking:

  • Road networks
  • Town planning
  • Green belts
  • Sewerage
  • Water supply
  • Electricity
  • Canals and waterways
  • Public transport
  • Parks
  • Buildings
  • Suburbs and commercial areas

It is a simple example but Im sure you can see the difference between “top down” and “bottom up”? Which view is right? Neither and both. Both views help you shape your problem understanding and potential solutions.

Too often I see people jump into the detail and data without checking to see whether they are considering the full breadth of the problem. By taking a step back and asking “What are the logical macro elements of this problem?” you can identify large aspects of the problem you otherwise may not have considered. Similarly, looking through the detail and the data, it is important to pop our heads up once in a while to ask “Hey, is this data indicating the existence of a big component of the problem that we hadn’t yet identified?” 

Discipline, patience, tools and collaboration can help you more holistically understand a problem from both a macro and micro level.

Focus: Think about your “elevator pitch”

Focus during the problem solving process is important. As we diverge and converge, it is important to be able to make sense of what we are learning and focus on the essence of what is emerging. This is often called the “so what” by McKinsey consultants. Given everything you have considered and learnt up to this point, so what? What is it telling us? What are we going to do now? It is not the solution. It is simply the essence of where we are in the process.

Think newspaper headline.

A great tool you can use to stay focused is an “elevator pitch”. The premise behind the elevator pitch is: Imagine you arrive at the office and as you step into the lift, the CEO / Chairman of the Board follows you in. On your way up to the 22 floor, the Chairman is inevitably going to ask you have things are going with your important strategic project / dilemma. What are you going to tell her? She is a busy and important person. She doesn’t have all day. Frankly, she has 30 – 60 seconds to get an update before she races off to the Board meeting. What are you going to tell her? Have discipline around:

  • Stick to the headline
  • Focus on the “so what”
  • Be honest on progress

“Gee, Miss Chairman, things are going really well – we have found some interesting opportunities on the West Coast that the team is busy building business cases for. Looks like we will find some profitable opportunities to explore in our meeting in 2 weeks”


“Gee, Miss Chairman, its tough going. The opportunities we thought we had on the West Coast aren’t shaping up to be very profitable. Looks like we may have to close the office. My analysts are scrubbing the pricing strategy at present so Ill have a more robust view for our meeting in two weeks.

Where are we in the process? What have we learnt? What does it mean? What are the current “so whats”?

Keeping track of this and having the discipline to test the team on their elevator pitch a couple of times a week will:

  • Drive insight early to make the process more efficient
  • Stop your analysts from going down random avenues of interest that don’t link back to the problem
  • Identify early opportunities to explore and potentially implement as quick wins
  • Allow you to arm yourself and your superiors with more and more insight into the problem each day
  • Cut out wasting time, energy and resources exploring elements of the problem that simply don’t matter

 Finding tools, team members and the discipline to collaboratively “porpoise” between top down and bottom up structuring of the problem; and diverging and converging on insights early and often in the process; will make you and your team efficient and effective problem solvers.


Methodology and Frameworks

Using a problem solving methodology will help you in two critical ways:

1. It will assist you in having the discipline to approach the problem holistically and methodically without jumping to solutions

2. It will provide you with a common process and structured tools to enhance collaboration and make team work more efficient and effective

In my experience, many problem solving methodologies and frameworks strive to do the same things – enhance the above mindsets and capabilities to develop creative, innovative and impactful solutions. I am most familiar with the McKinsey 7 Step problem Solving Framework and Design Thinking from the Institute of Design at Stanford.  I will unpack the different elements of the McKinsey 7 Step framework in separate articles (in order to be more comprehensive).

There is significant material in books such as The McKinsey Way and The McKinsey Mind; as well as freely available on line a number of different perspectives on the methodology.

The McKinsey 7 steps are:

Image taken from freely available http://docslide.us/business/mckinsey-staff-paper-66-mckinsey-approach-to-problem-solving.html

The d.school methodology looks at:

Taken from http://blog2.wikicdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/DesignProcess.png

You can access the Institute of Design at Stanford’s crash course in their methodology here: http://dschool.stanford.edu/dgift/

Whichever methodology you like or you find helpful, USE IT. Have sessions with your team members so you all understand the methodology and then have the discipline to use the methodology to push the thinking and build a robust solution!

Frameworks are often helpful informants to the problem solving process. A framework is simply someone else framing how they have looked at and structured similar problems. It is a good way to draw on experience in conceptually and analytically looking at a problem.

Hop onto google and search for “digital strategy framework” or “call centre performance management framework” or similar. Do image searches to see how people have visually attempted to represent a similar problem or area. It can boost your thinking.

NOTE: Frameworks are not silver bullets. I have seen people use great frameworks in appalling ways. A framework is a foundation on which to build. DO NOT BE LAZY and blindly apply a framework without good knowledge and judgement of the framework, your problem and context!

Just like any idiot can tell you the framework for building a house:

  • Foundation
  • Walls
  • Living room
  • Kitchen
  • Bathroom
  • Bedroom
  • Roof
  • Fittings, fixtures and paint

It takes a helluva lot more than just this framework to design and build your house!

Use frameworks. Abuse frameworks. Pull them apart. Build on them. Colour them. Throw them away. But never rely on them!

Okie dokie. So there we have a little overview of my thoughts on problem solving in general. As discussed, I have unpacked the McKinsey 7 step process in other specific articles. Also refer to other sister articles in the Problem Solving space of my blog on tools such as The Elevator Pitch, on effective communication and on creative techniques to push your conceptual problem solving.

As you know, problem solving is an invaluable skill. There are many many tools and frameworks out there to give you a leg up. But nothing can replace your unique knowledge, perspectives and judgement. This comes from discipline, experience and practice.

Don’t just “hop on a flight” the next time you have to solve a problem!

Read next: McKinsey 7 Step Problem Solving - an Overview


McKinsey 7 Step Problem Solving Process - an overview

McKinsey 7 Step Problem Solving Process - an overview

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