Boss Lady

The bulletproof way to solve problems


We all know the consequences of poor problem solving can be costly to business. Bulletproof Problem Solving introduces a long-tested and systematic approach that can be taught to anyone who wants to become a better problem solver. This 7-step process can be used by individuals, teams, executives, government policy makers, and social entrepreneurs—anyone with a complex and uncertain problem of consequence.

The Seven steps process

The heart of the book is a 7-step framework for creative problem solving, Bulletproof Problem solving, starting with these critical questions:

  1. How do you define a problem in a precise way to meet the decision maker’s needs?
  2. How do you disaggregate the issues and develop hypotheses to be explored?
  3. How do you prioritize what to do and what not to do?
  4. How do you work plan and assign analyses to yourself and others?
  5. How do you decide on the fact gathering and analysis to resolve the issues, while avoiding cognitive biases?
  6. How do you go about synthesizing the findings to highlight insights?
  7. How do you communicate them in a compelling way

We take you through the seven steps in a way that builds understanding and mastery through examples. We highlight a variety of analytic tools available to aid this process, from clever heuristics, analytic short cuts, and back-of-the-envelope calculations, to sophisticated tools such as game theory, regression analysis and machine learning.  We also show how common cognitive biases can be addressed as part of the problem-solving process.

We also explicitly deal with how you solve problems when uncertainty is high and interdependencies or systems effects are significant. We believe that even the so-called ‘wicked problems’ of society can be tackled such as obesity and environmental degradation. These are tough problems that have multiple causes, are affected by externalities, require human behavioral change, and have some solutions that may bring unintended consequences.

Pitfalls and common mistakes

Despite increasing focus on problem solving, we find that there is confusion about what good problem solving entails, There are a number of pitfalls and common mistakes that many make. These include:

  1. Weak problem statements. Too many problem statements we see lack specificity, clarity around decision maker criteria and constraints, an indication of action that will occur if the problem is solved, or a timeframe or required level of accuracy for solving the problem. Rushing into analysis with a vague problem statement is a clear formula for long hours and frustrated clients.
  2. Asserting the answer. The assertion is often based on experience or analogy (“I’ve seen this before”), without testing to see if that solution is really a good fit for the problem at hand. Answers like this are corrupted by availability bias (drawing only on facts at hand), anchoring bias (selecting a numerical range you have seen already), or confirmation bias (seeing only data that aligns with your prejudices).
  3. Failure to disaggregate the problem. We see few problems that can ever be solved without disaggregation into component parts. By finding the right cleaving point to disaggregate the problem a team iss able to focus on the crux of the issue.
  4. Neglecting team structure and norms. Our experiences in team problem solving in McKinsey and other organizations highlight the importance of a diversity of experience and divergent views in the group, having people who are open minded, a group dynamic that can be either competitive or collaborative, and training and team processes to reduce the impact of biases. This has been underscored by recent work on forecasting. Executives rank ‘reducing decision bias’ as their number one aspiration for improving performance.  Groupthink amongst a team of managers with similar backgrounds and traditional hierarchy can make it hard for them see the real alternatives clearly, a common problem in business.
  1. Incomplete analytic tool set. Some issues can be resolved with back of the envelope calculations.  Others demand time and sophisticated techniques.  For example, sometimes no amount of regression analysis is a substitute for a well-designed real world experiment that allows variables to be controlled and a valid counterfactual examined.  Other times analysis fails because teams don’t have the right tools. We often see overbidding for assets where teams use past earnings multiples rather than the present value of future cash flows. We also see underbidding for assets where development options and abandonment options, concepts akin to financial options, are not explicitly valued.
  1. Failing to link conclusions with a storyline for action. Analytically oriented teams often say, “we’re done” when the analysis is complete, but without thinking about how to synthesize and communicate complex concepts to diverse audiences.  For example, ecologists have pointed to the aspects of nature and urban green spaces that promote human well being.  The message has frequently been lost in the technical language of ‘ecosystem services’—that is, in describing the important role that bees play in pollination, that trees play in absorbing particulate matter, or water catchments play in providing drinking water. By completing the circle and finding a way to develop a compelling storyline that links back to the ‘hook’ of human health makes all the difference in capturing an audience and compelling action.
  1. Treating the problem solving process as one-off rather than an iterative one. Rarely is a problem solved once and for all. Problems often have a messiness about them that takes you back and forth between hypotheses, analysis and conclusions, each time deepening your understanding.

Our aim is simple: to enable readers to become better problem solvers in all aspects of their lives. You don’t need post-graduate training to be an effective problem solver. You do need to be prepared to work through a process and develop cases of your own where you can try-test-learn the framework.









Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Bulletproof Problem Solving by Charles Conn and Robert McLean. Copyright © 2018 by Charles Conn and Robert McLean. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

About Robert McLean'

Robert McLean is co-author with Charles Conn of Bulletproof Problem Solving, and is a Senior Adviser at McKinsey and Company. He led the Australian and New Zealand McKinsey practice for eight years and served on the firm's global Directors Committee.

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