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6 Steps to effective Problem Solving

Steps And Shadows

6 Steps to effective Problem Solving

Leaders that learn to adopt a particularly open and curious mindset whilst adhering to a systematic process, often crack even the most inscrutable problems. Naturally, when conditions of uncertainty are at their peak or most dire these leaders quietly are at their brilliant best.

Six mutually reinforcing approaches underly their success:

(1) being ever-curious about every element of a problem;

(2) being imperfectionists, with a high tolerance for ambiguity;

(3) having a “dragonfly eye” view of the world, to see through multiple lenses;

(4) pursuing occurrent behaviour and experimenting relentlessly;

(5) tapping into the collective intelligence, acknowledging that the smartest people are not in the room; and

(6) practicing “show and tell” because storytelling begets action.


  1. Be ever-curious

As any parent knows, four-year-olds are unceasing askers. Thinking of the never-ending “whys” a 3 to 5 year old can be relentless. For the very young, everything is new and wildly uncertain. On their mission to discovery they are extremely determined to figure things out.

Perhaps somewhere between preschool and the boardroom we tend to stop asking? Our brains can make sense of massive numbers of data points by imposing patterns that have worked for us and other humans in the past. Some simple techniques to begin with are:

  • Pause, and ask why conditions or assumptions are so until you arrive at the root of the problem. This was the approach of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.
  • In team problem solving, put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers, as it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence.
  • Encourage and rebirth curiosity – this is the proven engine of creativity.


  1. Tolerate ambiguity—and stay humble!

Jim Collins in that work we like to quote often, Good to Great (2001), noted humility as the number trait of Level 5 Leaders. These lead their companies in those key formative years on the path to greatness. Good problem solving has a lot of trial and error, it’s more like the apparent randomness of football than software programming. First we begin the hypotheses of which there may be a few, then we apply that to the data or other, and use that to refine or throw out even guesses at the answer. This above all as a process requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity, in addition to a gambler’s sense of probabilities, not to mention the patience of Job!

The real world is highly uncertain. Our  guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong or even correct. That’s why one of the keys to operating in uncertain environments is epistemic humility. Erik Angner defines this type of humility as “the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence”. Posted here if you want  to read more in “Epistemic humility—knowing your limits in a pandemic” Behavioral Scientist, April 13, 2020,

Even when you have humility in your approach based on facts, things may initially be difficult. When the Australian research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) owned a core patent on the wireless internet protocol, it sought royalties from major companies. CSIRO  initially was rebuffed. The CSIRO thought “Hey we can go to court can’t we?” because they reasoned they needed only 10 percent odds of success for the legal costs and likely payoff. CSIRO picked the weakest of the IP violators  whilst selecting the best legal jurisdiction for their legal fight, that favoured them as plaintiffs. This “probabilistic” thinking paid off and the settlements to CSIRO exceeded $500 million (2006). 

Here is a  way to start:

  • Start by challenging solutions that imply certainty such  as “What would we have to believe for this to be true?” to surface implicit assumptions about probabilities. From here it is easier to assess alternatives. When uncertainty is high in your answers, see if you can make small moves or acquire information at a reasonable cost, to edge out into a solution set you can work with.
  • Embrace imperfection. Perfect knowledge is in short supply, particularly for complex business and societal problems. Embracing imperfection leads 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, like we face now in Covid’s uncertain times.


  1. Take a dragonfly-eye view

Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light. By analogy, they see multiple perspectives not available to humans. The idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception is an attribute of “superforecasters”. These are people, often without domain expertise, who are the best at forecasting events.

  • Try 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 also to “anchor outside” rather than inside, when faced with problems of uncertainty and opportunity. That is, take the broader ecosystem as a starting point which encourages us to talk with customers, suppliers, or even industry players in a different but related industry or space. Anchor your views from outside the organisation.
  • Also as decision makers we often face highly constrained time frames or resources. This narrows the aperture  of view unlike that dragonfly, and it results in a tight or conventional answer to a problem often – see also Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, Wiley, 2018.
  • Pursue “occurrent” behaviour. Occurrent behavior is what actually happens in a time and place, and not what was potential or predicted behaviour. Complex problems don’t give up their secrets easily. 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 some stale solutions.
  • Design experiments to reduce key uncertainties, not just relying on existing data. Each move such as buying IP or acquiring a component supplier, perhaps gauging community insight, and then each experiment not only provides additional information to make decisions but also builds capabilities and assets that support further steps.
  • Developments over time from your experiments do come to resemble staircases. These can lead to either the goal or to abandonment of the goal. Problem-solving organisations can “bootstrap” themselves into highly uncertain new spaces, building information, foundational assets and confidence as they take steps forward by focused experimentation. Statisticians actually use the abbreviation EVPI—the expected value of perfect information—to show the value of gaining additional information. This mostly comes or typically comes from samples and experiments, such as responses to price changes or community sentiment in particular markets.
  • Key data will come from focus. The proven mindset required to be a restless experimenter is consistent with the notion in start-ups of “failing fast.” That is, that you get product and customer affirmation or rejection quickly through beta tests and trial offerings. You can do this with surveys. A lack of external data may actually be a gift also, since most purchasable data is almost always from a conventional way of meeting needs. This data is available to your competitors too  but as a council, this can be very handy. Your own experiments so allow you to generate your own data; this gives you insights that others don’t have.


  1. Tap into the collective intelligence and the wisdom of the crowd

Chris Bradley a co-author of Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, observed that “it’s a mistake to think that on your team you have the smartest people in the room. They aren’t there. They’re invariably somewhere else!” 

You don’t need them to be there if you can access their intelligence via other means. Crowdsourcing invites the smartest people in the world to work with you.

Crowdsourced problem solving is familiar in another guise: benchmarking. When Sir Rod Carnegie was CEO of Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA), he was concerned about the costs of unscheduled downtime with heavy trucks, particularly those requiring tyre changes. Their answer was in Formula One so they travelled to the United Kingdom to learn best practice for tyre changes in racetrack pits and then implemented what they learned thousands of miles away, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The smartest team for this problem wasn’t in the mining industry at all. 

Some take aways:

  • Conventional thinking yields solutions that are too expensive or incomplete for the challenge at hand, it has limitations. 
  • Good crowdsourcing takes time to set up, can be expensive, and may signal to your competitors what you are up to. Beware of hidden costs, such as inadvertently divulging information and having to sieve through huge volumes of irrelevant, inferior suggestions to find the rare gem of a solution.
  • 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 from communities.
  • Note: rookie problem solvers show you their deep analytic process and math to convince you they are clever, whereas seasoned problem solvers show you differently.
  • “Show and tell” to drive action in your teams.
  • Rookie problem solvers are keen and referred to as “APK” or the “anxious parade of knowledge”! The most elegant problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. Don’t discard the obvious.
  • To get better at show and tell, start by being clear about the action that should flow from your problem solving and your findings & include the governing idea for change. Find a way to present your logic visually so that the path to answers can be debated and embraced. A philanthropic organisation brought 17 buckets of seawater including oysters into a fundraising meet, and achieved the funding. The givers felt connected to the marine life and the problem and then involved by this show and tell. It changed the exercise from being asked for money, to being involved in environment and they loved it.
  • Present your show and tell arguments emotionally as well as logically. Show why the preferred action offers an attractive balance between risks and rewards. Spell out the risks of inaction which often have a higher cost than imperfect actions have.
  • Remember, with all these steps we build towards possible solutions. That is the process of curiosity – to have that dragon-fly type approach and another view that comes from outside in. We don’t need to be the smartest people in the room but we can work via the collective experiments and external insights, and develop solutions to solve problems in real time. We need this during uncertainty. It makes it all an adventure!


Taken from Business problem solving | McKinsey