Eight lessons we learned about problem solving


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Suggestions on how to structure, plan, analyze and present complex issues

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Eight lessons we learned about problem solving

  1. 1. Eight lessons we learned about problemsolving March 2013 www .t hi s i sxy .c o m
  2. 2. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solvingContacts:Romeu Gasparromeu.gaspar@thisisxy.comUK: +44 (20) 3239 5245 | PT: +351 210 961 834Skype: xypartners 2
  3. 3. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solvingEight lessons we learned about problem solvingSuggestions on how to Many assignments start on the wrongstructure, plan, analyze and foot by failing to clearly define thepresent com plex issues. problem at hands. This can happen for a number of reasons, but in ourProblem solving has been coined as a experience it is usually due tobuzzword, perhaps undeservedly so: miscommunication somewhere alongwhether alone or in teams, for the chain of command: fromacademic or professional purposes, management to business unit, frommost of us are frequently required to client to supplier, from team leader tosolve problems. Some of them are part team members. Avoiding this issue isof our daily routine and can be dealt therefore relatively straightforward: askwith fairly quickly; others are less as many questions and hold as manyorthodox and require more thought. meetings as necessary to make sureThis article suggests 8 rules to deal everybody is at the same page.with the latter type, based on our ownexperience. As part of this learning While common sense is arguably theprocess we have broken these rules best tool for clearly defining a problem,many times (and still do, on occasion), there are some frameworks you canso you will find both good and bad use. The Minto Pyramid Principle, forexamples illustrating these guidelines: instance, is a structuring and communication technique that breaks1. Clearly define the problem down an issue in three parts (ExhibitExhibit 1 – The Situation-Complication-Question framework, a structuring and communicationtechnique from the Minto Pyramid Principle 3
  4. 4. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solving1): the situation (what we want to do), want to read our article aboutthe complication (what is the obstacle managing virtual teams).preventing us from doing it), and thequestion (what we need to do to If you are dealing with large teams, orremove that obstacle). need to explain your approach to other people, it might be worthwhile to2. Take time to plan an approach represent it visually, as this makes it easier to understand and rememberThere is a tendency to jump directly (for instance, Exhibit 2 illustrates ourinto problem solving without first approach to valuate and support theplanning an approach, particularly acquisition of a waste managementwhen time pressed. However, it is company).exactly when time is of the essencethat you should stop to think about the 3. Combine different informationbest way to address the issue at sources and techniqueshands. This will save invaluable timeand effort later on. Combining different information sources and techniques can greatlyA good approach to problem solving improve the outcome of problemwill often follow the general rules of solving, as it will help to identify flawssound project management: break in logic, unrealistic assumptions,down the issue into smaller tasks, inaccurate data and bias. This isassign tasks to team members, define particularly true for complex issues,dependencies, milestones and such as forecasting (a topic wedeliverables (if your team is discuss here) or consensus-basedgeographically dispersed you might decisions (which we address here).Exhibit 2 – An example of a visual representation of a problem solving approach 4
  5. 5. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solvingExhibit 3 – An example of a problem solving outcome that combines different informationsources and techniques conclusion will then limit your ability toExhibit 3 illustrates this approach with analyze alternative answers impartiallya global oil storage capacity forecast and objectively.we did recently. The forecastcombines different information sources Exhibit 4 illustrates a well-known case(market reports, research, and expert of inference-observation confusion:interviews) and techniques (a “top- recent data from meteorologicaldown” forecast based on oil demand, stations show no relevant increase inand a “bottom-up” forecast based on the average surface air temperaturesplanned storage facilities). for the last 15 years, which prompted some people to conclude that global4. Do not jump to conclusions warming had stopped. That is, unfortunately, not the case: byNo matter how solid the planning and analyzing the last 130 years, itapproach are, there will be a natural becomes apparent that temperaturetendency to jump to conclusions early has been increasing in the long-term,on in the process. This bias, often and that the slight decrease of the lastknown as inference-observation 15 years is well within normal cyclicalconfusion, will temp you to infer a variations.conclusion with insufficient supportinginformation. Hanging on to a 5. Favor quality over quantitypreliminary, and potentially wrong, 5
  6. 6. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solving“The best way to solve a problem is on side issues; do not develop youroften the simplest one” is a variation of reasoning beyond the point necessarythe Occam’s razor principle that we to support your conclusions;often apply to all stages of problem communicate your reasoning andsolving. Corollaries to this principle conclusions clearly, succinctly andinclude: involve no more people than using the least amount of industryyou need to; focus on the critical issue jargon possible. In short, thinkinstead of spending time and energy Bauhaus instead of Baroque. Exhibit 4 – An example of inference-observation confusion: using only the last 15 years of temperature data to infer that global warming has stopped Exhibit 5 – A graphical representation of Brook’s Law, originally created for software development but applied today in many fields 6
  7. 7. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solving6. More time and more resources be counterproductive, since teamare not necessarily a good thing members risk loosing focus or being sidetracked to solve more urgentIn 1975, Fred Brooks postulated a issues.principle that continues to be widelyused in software development today: 7. A good framework is an invisible“Adding manpower to a late software frameworkproject makes it later” or, moreinformally, “Nine women cant make a There is often a fine line between ababy in one month". Brooks argues well-structured analysis and a sterilethat every software project has a one. From our own experience, thatminimum completion time, below line is crossed when the frameworkwhich the benefits of adding more used to support the analysis assumesresources are negated by ramp-up more importance that the analysistime and communication overheads itself. When communicating your(Exhibit 5). outcome, focus on the reasoning and conclusions, and leave anyIt can be argued that the same methodologies and tools behind.principle is applicable to othercollaborative activities that cannot be Exhibit 6 compares two possible wayseasily partitioned into independent and of summarizing the conclusions of aisolated tasks, such as problem Commercial Due Diligence wesolving. It can also be argued that, performed recently. The initial version,beyond a certain point, having more on the left, was awkward andtime to solve a complex problem can telegraphic, because it highlighted the framework instead of the conclusions.Exhibit 6 – An example of what happens when the analysis framework assumes moreimportance than the analysis itself (on the left), and how this can be solved (on the right) 7
  8. 8. X&Y Partners Eight lessons we learned about problem solving Exhibit 7 – Example of how a visual representation can make the problem solving outcome easier to understand and rememberThe revised version, on the right, understand and remember (Exhibit 7focused solely on the conclusions, summarizes our recommendation formaking it much more enticing and an investment fund interested ineasier to read. acquiring commercial-scale solar PV plants).8. Save time to carefully structureand present the conclusions In our next article we will discuss in more detail the issue of structuring,No matter how good the reasoning preparing and delivering a solidand conclusions, they amount to very presentation.little if they are not clearlycommunicated to decision-makers. Asin Rule #2, a visual representation canmake the outcome easier to 8