Canberra      Sydney      Brisbane

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 for cracking even the most inscrutable problems. Naturally, when conditions of uncertainty are at their peak or most dire they’re 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) practising “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 discover, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. Encourage and rebirth curiosity – it is the engine of creativity.

2. 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 – that lead their companies in those key 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 the hypotheses, then we apply that to the data or other and use that to refine or throw out guesses at the answer. This above all requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity—and a gambler’s sense of probabilities with the patience of Job! 

The real world is highly uncertain. Look at Covid. Guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong. That’s why one of the keys to operating in uncertain environments is epistemic humility, which Erik Angner defines as “the realisation that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence” in his work “Epistemic humility—knowing your limits in a pandemic” Behavioral Scientist, April 13, 2020,

When the Australian research body Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which owned a core patent on the wireless internet protocol, sought royalties from major companies it was initially rebuffed. The CSIRO thought we can go to court because they reasoned they needed only 10 per cent odds of success for the legal costs and likely payoff. It picked the weakest of the IP violators selecting the best legal jurisdiction that favoured plaintiffs. This probabilistic thinking paid off. Settlements to CSIRO exceeded $500 million (2006).

  1. Start by challenging solutions that imply certainty. “What would we have to believe for this to be true?” to 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. 
  2. Embrace imperfection. 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 like we face now in uncertain times.

3. 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 “super-forecasters” who are people, often without domain expertise, who are the best at forecasting events.

  1. 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.
  2. The secret to developing a dragonfly-eye view is to “anchor outside” rather than inside when faced with problems of uncertainty and opportunity. 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. 
  3. Be cautious here. As decision-makers, we often face highly constrained time frames or resources which often narrows the aperture unlike that dragonfly, and it results in a tight or conventional answer to a problem – see Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, Wiley, 2018.

4. Pursue “occurred”t behaviour


Occurrent behaviour is what happens in a time and place and not what was potential or predicted behaviour. 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.

  1. Design experiments to reduce key uncertainties, not just relying on existing data. Each move such as buying IP or acquiring a component supplier and each experiment not only provides additional information to make decisions but also builds capabilities and assets that support further steps. 
  2. Develop over time from your experiments do come to resemble staircases that lead to either the goal or to an 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 use the abbreviation EVPI—the expected value of perfect information—to show the value of gaining additional information that typically comes from samples and experiments, such as responses to price changes in particular markets. 
  3. 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. A lack of external data may be a gift since purchasable data is almost always from a conventional way of meeting needs and is available to your competitors too. Own experiments allow you to generate your own data; this gives you insights that others don’t have. 

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

Chris Bradley a coauthor 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 tire changes. Their answer was Formula One travelling to the United Kingdom to learn best practices for tire changes in racetrack pits and then implemented what it 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.

  1. Conventional thinking yields solutions that are too expensive or incomplete for the challenge at hand, it has its 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Note: rookie problem-solvers show you their analytic process and math to convince you they are clever whereas seasoned problem solvers show you differently.

6. “Show and tell” to drive action


Rookie problem-solvers show you their analytic process and mathematics to convince you that they are clever. Often referred to as APK or the anxious parade of knowledge! The most elegant problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. 

  1. To get better at the 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. A philanthropic organisation brought 17 buckets of seawater including oysters into a fundraising meet and achieved the funding. The givers felt connected and involved by the show and tell. It changed the exercise from being asked to money, to being involved in environmental care and loved it.
  2. Present your show and tell arguments emotionally as well as logically and 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.

With all these steps, we can find by diverging to find answers to ill-defined problems, we build towards possible solutions. That is the process of curiosity – to have that dragon-fly type approach and another view. We don’t need to be the smartest in the room but we can work via the collective and develop solutions and insights to solve problems in real-time. We need this during uncertainty. It makes it all an adventure!

Taken from Business problem solving | McKinsey