Problem-solving skills do not necessarily develop naturally; they need to be explicitly taught in a way that can be transferred across multiple settings and contexts.
When the future scenarios are few, finite, and familiar, risks can be mitigated based on ranking possible outcomes, often by invoking unmeasurable values based on ethical notions, social choice models, personal preferences, and utilities. Even if the future scenarios are not articulable as discrete options, there may be a range of choices.
Effective decision making and critical thinking are important at all times, but their application is most essential in times of crisis. These skills are required by everyone—from teachers to students to the school leadership—during the pandemic.
After decades of problem solving with leaders across businesses, Mckinsey & Company have come to the conclusion that great problem solvers are made, not born. Adhering to a systematic process for cracking problems under any conditions, they adopt a particularly open, tolerant, and curious mindset.
“To develop your problem-solving acumen,
use a structured approach that focuses on the
why, what, and how of your issue.”
Let’s break it down by analyzing the six mutually reinforcing behavioral approaches underlying successful problem solving, as recommended by Mckinsey & Company:
(1) Being curious
(2) Being an imperfectionist
(3) Having a “dragonfly eye” view of the world
(4) Experimenting relentlessly
(5) Tapping into the collective intelligence
(6) Practicing “show and tell”
Here’s how they do it.
1. Be ever curious
When faced with uncertainty, channel the curious child within you by relentlessly asking: “Why is this so?” Our brains make sense of patterns that have worked for us by relying on our past experiences. That is why a simple technique worth considering at the onset is simply pausing to ask why conditions or assumptions are so until the root of the problem is identified.
Famous author and economist Caroline Webb advises putting a question mark behind all initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This encourages multiple solution paths and generates more relevant responses to questions, such as:
Why is this solution better? Why not that one?
2. Tolerate ambiguity, and stay humble!
Most good problem solvers face a lot of trial and error while they constantly test their initial hypotheses and put probabilities to the test. It is essential to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. That’s why one of the keys to operating in uncertain environments is epistemic humility, which Erik Angner defines as “the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence.”
Recent research shows that we are better at solving problems when we think in terms of odds rather than certainties; having a tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to play the odds helps in finding an appropriate solution path. Good problem solving typically involves designing experiments to reduce key uncertainties as each move provides additional information and builds capabilities.
Therefore, assess your alternatives by asking questions, such as:
“What would we have to believe for this to be true?”
3. Take a dragonfly-eye view
Having a “Dragonfly-Eye” perception is common to great problem solvers. By analogy, dragonflies see multiple perspectives not available to humans. Therefore, the idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception is an attribute of people who are “superforecasters with an ability to analyze the problem through multiple lenses.”
By widening the aperture, we can condition our minds to see beyond the familiar outcomes of our pattern-recognizing brain and identify threats or opportunities which are 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 when faced with problems of uncertainty and opportunity.
4. Pursue Occurrent Behavior
Risk-embracing problem solvers find a solution path by constantly experimenting. Occurrent behavior is allowing your experiments to generate your data, giving you insights that others don’t have.
This approach entails creating data rather than just looking for what has been collected already. It also comes in handy should you find that crunching old data is leading to stale solutions.
To win in the great unknown, good problem solving typically involves designing experiments to reduce key uncertainties, not just relying on existing data. Each move and each experiment not only provides additional information to make decisions but also builds capabilities and assets that support further steps. Problem-solving teams can “bootstrap” themselves into highly uncertain new spaces, building information, foundational assets, and confidence as they take steps forward.
5. 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.
Start with brainstorming sessions that engage people from outside your team. Accepting that it’s okay to reach out for diverse experiences and expertise from outside your circle will give you more insight into your problem. The broader the circles of information you access, the more likely it is that your solutions will be novel and creative. This approach differentiates an experienced problem solver from a novice.
6. Show and tell to drive action
The most constructive problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. This critical approach connects your audience with the problem and then uses combinations of logic and persuasion to implement a solution. The show-and-tell mindset aims to bring decision makers into a problem-solving domain you have created.
The late economist Herb Simon put it this way:
“Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”
To practice this, begin 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 the solutions you propose can be debated and agreed upon mutually. It is essential to present the argument both emotionally and logically, to clarify that the proposed solution is an attractive balance between all risks and rewards.
The mindsets of great problem solvers are just as important as the methods they employ. These approaches can be helpful in a broad range of circumstances, but in times of massive uncertainty, they are essential.