Bulletproof Problem Solving
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Bulletproof Problem Solving

The One Skill That Changes Everything

Charles Conn, Robert McLean

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eBook - ePub

Bulletproof Problem Solving

The One Skill That Changes Everything

Charles Conn, Robert McLean

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About This Book

Complex problem solving is the core skill for 21 st Century Teams

Complex problem solving is at the very top of the list of essential skills for career progression in the modern world. But how problem solving is taught in our schools, universities, businesses and organizations comes up short. In Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything you'll learn the seven-step systematic approach to creative problem solving developed in top consulting firms that will work in any field or industry, turning you into a highly sought-after bulletproof problem solver who can tackle challenges that others balk at.

The problem-solving technique outlined in this book is based on a highly visual, logic-tree method that can be applied to everything from everyday decisions to strategic issues in business to global social challenges. The authors, with decades of experience at McKinsey and Company, provide 30 detailed, real-world examples, so you can see exactly how the technique works in action. With this bulletproof approach to defining, unpacking, understanding, and ultimately solving problems, you'll have a personal superpower for developing compelling solutions in your workplace.

  • Discover the time-tested 7-step technique to problem solving that top consulting professionals employ
  • Learn how a simple visual system can help you break down and understand the component parts of even the most complex problems
  • Build team brainstorming techniques that fight cognitive bias, streamline workplanning, and speed solutions
  • Know when and how to employ modern analytic tools and techniques from machine learning to game theory
  • Learn how to structure and communicate your findings to convince audiences and compel action

The secrets revealed in Bulletproof Problem Solving will transform the way you approach problems and take you to the next level of business and personal success.

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Chapter One
Learn the Bulletproof Problem Solving Approach

Illustration depicting the seven steps to learn the bulletproof problem solving approach.
In the 1980s, when Charles was at business school, he wanted to understand the then‐ascendant Japanese business practices better. He wrote to dozens of Japanese companies to see if they would host him for a summer internship. Most never replied, but just as he was thinking he might be unemployed for the summer, Charles received a letter from a Dr. Utsumi at Canon, the camera and printer company. Canon was prepared to hire Charles as its first western intern, and soon he was winging his way to Japan.
It sounds like a fun adventure, and it was, but it was also a huge shock. Charles was seconded to the production planning division in a distant Tokyo suburb, and assigned to a Canon men's dormitory, three train lines and 90 minutes away. He couldn't speak or read Japanese. He was assigned what seemed at first an impossible task: develop a model for how to site factories. He despaired—what did he know about where to put factories? It seemed like a specialist problem.
But, with the help of a translating colleague, he began to interview the team about their experiences in different factory location decisions around the world. Patterns began to emerge in his findings. He learned which variables were involved, from local authorities' incentives, to local taxation rates, wage levels, raw materials transportation cost, and so on, and eventually he figured out which were more or less important. Finally he built a logic tree that captured the variables, the direction or sign of impact, and the weight of the factors. He tested the model with data from past factory decisions and honed its accuracy with the senior team. In the end, this little model became the core tool used by the department to make complex factory siting decisions! The secret was that it was a single‐page way of seeing complicated trade‐offs that had previously been buried in dense reports. It made the logic of the criteria clear, and opened weighting of variables up to discussion.
It saved what might have been a disastrous internship, but more importantly, it convinced Charles of the decision‐making power of relatively simple logical structures and processes in problem solving. That is the core focus of this book.
Problem solving means different things to different people. When Rob asked his seven‐year‐old granddaughter how school was going, she said to him, “Papa, I'm very good at problem solving.” This of course was music to Rob's ears! Of course, she was really talking about doing math and logic problems in a school setting. Unfortunately, these essential problem solving building blocks are seldom taught as a systematic process and rarely in a way that addresses problems of everyday relevance and consequence. For us, problem solving means the process of making better decisions on the complicated challenges of personal life, our workplaces, and the policy sphere.
The magic of the Bulletproof Problem Solving approach we introduce here is in following the same systematic process to solve nearly every type of problem, from linear ones to problems with complex interdependencies. It sets out a simple but rigorous approach to defining problems, disaggregating them into manageable pieces, focusing good analytic tools on the most important parts, and then synthesizing findings to tell a powerful story. While the process has a beginning and end, we encourage you to think of problem solving as an iterative process rather than a linear one. At each stage we improve our understanding of the problem and use those greater insights to refine our early answers.
In this chapter we outline the overall Bulletproof Problem Solving Process, introducing you to the seven steps that later chapters will address in more detail. We demonstrate the use of logic trees to uncover the structure of problems and focus on solution paths. We provide several straightforward cases to get readers started. Later chapters will introduce advanced techniques for more complicated and uncertain problems.

The Bulletproof Problem Solving Cycle

The bulletproof problem solving process is both a complete process and an iterative cycle. This cycle can be completed over any timeframe with the information at hand. Once you reach a preliminary end point, you can repeat the process to draw out more insight for deeper understanding.
We often use the expression, “What's the one‐day answer?” This means we ask our team to have a coherent summary of our best understanding of the problem and a solution path at any point in the project, not just at the end. This process of creating active hypotheses is at the heart of Bulletproof Problem Solving. It can even help you face the dreaded “elevator test.” The elevator test is when you, as a junior team member, find yourself in an elevator with the most senior person in your organization and they ask, “How is your project going?” We have all had this happen. You panic, your mind goes blank, and you stammer out a nonsensical dog's breakfast of an answer. The bulletproof problem solving process in the following pages can help you beat this situation and turn the elevator test into an opportunity for promotion.
The kind of problem solving we describe can be done alone or in teams. If you're tackling a problem by yourself, we suggest building in review processes that you can use with family and colleagues to get the higher objectivity and other bias‐fighting benefits of a team.
The seven steps are introduced in Exhibit 1.1.
Illustration depicting the seven steps involved in the bulletproof problem solving cycle.

Illustration of the first step to define the problem that is agreed upon by those involved in making a decision.

Illustration of the second step to disaggregate the problem into component parts or issues.

Illustration of the third step to prioritize the issues and identify which issue has the biggest impact on the problem.

Illustration of the fourth step to build a workplan and timetable that assigns team members to analytic tasks.

Illustration of the fifth step to conduct critical analyses to get an understanding of each problem component.

Illustration of the sixth step to synthesize findings from the analysis to be assembled into a logical structure to test validity.

Illustration of the seventh step to prepare a powerful communication using a governing thought or argument.
EXHIBIT 1.1 The bulletproof problem solving cycle

Prepare for an Avalanche of Trees!

We use logic or issue trees to visualize and disaggregate problems. We employ several types, including hypothesis trees and decision trees, as you will see in the cases we present throughout this book. We learned the power of logic trees at McKinsey and continue to find them essential to good problem solving. Why? Because they do the following:
  • Provide a clear visual representation of the problem so that everyone can understand the component parts.
  • Done correctly, they are holistic in the sense that everything relevant is captured in the tree.
  • Lead to clear hypotheses that can be tested with data and analysis.
Our logic trees are sometimes simple and sometimes highly complex. But they all started on a sketchpad or a whiteboard.

Let's Start with Some Case Studies

To illustrate the bulletproof problem solving process, we chose some case studies that represent classes of problems that many of our readers will face, and that exhibit the power and utility of the process described in detail over the next several chapters.
  1. Is Sydney airport capacity adequate for the future?
  2. Should I install solar panels on my roof now?
  3. Where should I move?
  4. Should a start‐up raise its prices?
  5. Should I support a K–12 school education levy in my town?
These relatively simple cases will outline each of the seven problem sol...

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