The 10 secret ingredients of outstanding problem-solving

Most guides to decision-making focus on project management or people management skills. Yet, the core of clear decision-making is, undoubtedly, problem-solving. Without excellence in problem-solving, the task- and people-management skills – as important as they are – will not shed light on the issues! This is how to recognize and practice skillful problem-solving.

How can you tell world-class problem-solving from sloppy, incomplete or inaccurate work?

Outstanding problem-solving: A practice that produces clear, relevant, and eminently applicable answers to the correct questions, and, in the process, generates absolute conviction in the entire team, so that the solution gets implemented, and makes a difference!

Outstanding problem-solving does not just spring up from the ground fully-formed and ready to deploy.  It is built  on a solid grounding of skills and habits of thinking and practice that are rarely articulated.  These skills produce a final products with distinctive ingredients.

Here is what you should look for in problem-solving excellence:

questions hands-600
  • The quality of your answer depends on the questions you ask.
  • Ask great questions!
  • Define everything.
  • Precisely.
  • Evidence, not opinions.
  • Emotions are facts too.

Mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. (MECE)


Keep probing.


Prioritize ruthlessly!


Beware logical fallacies and cognitive biases.


The one case where quantity matters.

  • Knowledge is not understanding.
  • Your intuition is not magic.
  • Never, ever, ever surprise your client!
  • There are no good surprises.

The good news is, this toolbox will lead you to the promised land of clarity.

Without clarity –  if there are any doubts, imprecision, incompleteness, logical flaws, disregarded evidence, or any other imperfections – neither you, nor your client, or manager, or executives, will make any decision. And your work will simply dissipate without impact.

The bad news is, there is 10 of them… Not one or two. problem-solving is complex, and success requires mastering a number of tools. But mastery is possible!

That is, indeed, remarkable.


questions hands-600What does a ‘good question’ really look like? How can you tell if you have put one together, or you still need to work on it?

There are two instances where ‘questioning intelligence’ is decisive:

  • Articulating the question of the problem statement.
  • Information-gathering questions: During company meetings (kickoffs, updates), expert interviews, etc.

We will address the foundational task of formulating the problem statement first. Here is what you need to ask yourself:

How to pull together a complete question

  1. Is the question I am thinking of reflecting the entire breadth and depth of the problem?
  2. Do I need to do additional probing to understand the deeper (more detailed) or larger (higher-level)  issue?
  3. Are the issues listed tightly linked to a clear objective?i.e. if I address the issues, I will reach the objective?
  4. Have I considered all time frames (short-, medium, -long-term)?
  5. Have I considered all stakeholders? (company, customers, suppliers, investors, consumers, employees, executives, others?)
  6. Do we have criteria to evaluate our hypotheses?
  7. Have I included any clues, hypotheses, or indicators to help start my research?

The question you end up putting together for research is the result of a lot of ‘sculpting’ until you arrive at just the right form.

For answers, look here:


charioteer-face-800-NEWOur focus with problem-solving is to generate clarity. It is self-evident then, that precision must play a central role.

How does precision manifest itself, and how do we cultivate that thinking habit?

Precision is the unambiguous understanding of all terms used in a conversation. So, the strict definition of all qualifiers must be positively agreed by all involved.

What does ‘better’, ‘higher’/’lower’, ‘improved’, ‘long-term’/’short-term’, ‘small’/’large’ exactly translate to? It must be quantified, either in absolute or at least in range terms.

Keep sculpting for precision

Precision: Is every qualifying component of the question rigorously defined? (What does ‘better’ customer service mean? How will I measure it?). Is it agreed by all?

You will keep ‘sculpting’ the question until you have an unambiguous (quantified, qualified, or in-range) language.

For answers, look here:


The earth is round. Not flat.

Facts come into play throughout the problem-solving process:

  • Facts related to the situation we experience
  • Facts discovered during field research

Facts can become confused with opinions, assumptions or hypotheses. Is the ‘are costs are too high’ a fact? an assumption we will make in the beginning of a scenario analysis? Or a hypothesis? (And, what does ‘high’ mean? Based on what comparative measure? )

Make sure you always draw out the distinction, and verify facts; clearly state assumptions and hypotheses, or your entire story structure at the end could come crumbling down.

How to tell if you are working with facts

Fact or opinion? Is the statement an opinion? Or it is a verifiable fact? Verification must be based on reliable sources, scientific results, duplicatable experiments and the like. Sources must be stated and be transparent.

Fact or assumption? Are we stating a fact or an assumption? Assumptions should be teased out at every stage, and be subject to verification. Again, transparency and credibility of source are needed.

Fact or hypothesis? Are we working with a fact or a hypothetical scenario – maybe one of many to be analyzed in the problem-solving process?

For answers, look here:


What is a complete statement of the problem? Or a complete answer to it?

We have found the McKinsey MECE terminology most depictive and illuminating:

  • M: Mutually
  • E: Exclusive
  • C: Collectively
  • E: Exhaustive

Your organization of the problem must be absolutely and strictly MECE. Your proposed solution to the problem will be the clearest if it is also MECE (it must certainly be ‘collectively exhaustive’, i.e. addressing the entire breadth and depth of the problem, but ovelap of proposed solutions across problem areas may crop up. Prioritization may help here).

Is your problem organization MECE?

Are you MECE? Make sure you organize the problem in MECE groups, that can be research and analyzed separately to cover the totality of the problem.

Logic and creativity: Assuming you follow a rigorous analytical process to answer the question, the implication is that whatever is NOT included in your setup question will not be addressed. How, then, do you compose something that is accurately reflective of what you need answered, yet leaves room for new discovery along the way?

For answers, look here (coming soon).


How far do you need to drill down?

Too many times an arguments is not convincing because it does not address the questions all the way to the truth.

When you hear: “This raises more questions than it answers”, you have your clue that you have not exhausted the topic to the point where there is light shed on every detail.

And the reality is, that try as we might, we will not get anyone to take action until all the dark corners have been illuminated. We can try to hide facts or facets, but the doubts will remain – often in the unconscious mind, and always, frustrating your audience, and leaving them uncommitted.

Go deeper into each question, until you shed light on everything unknown.

Do you have certainty? Make sure you address all the questions, all the way down. You can’t stop before you reach a set of facts known to everyone, and accepted by everyone.

For answers, look here (coming soon).


shutterstock_rice-terraceUnless you understand how to prioritize ideas, problems, or solutions, you are likely to miss the point, waste time, and/or fail to have the impact you aim for.

For example, presenting the weakest, or least impactful solution first – maybe because it came first chronologically – is a classic mistake that can cost you immediate credibility loss.

List everything in order of importance

Importance: Do I understand the relative weight of the various parts of the question? (e.g. which segments are most / least important?)

Importance is context-sensitive: The most important problem (or solution), may be the one that is chronologically first, or last, or the largest, or the easiest to solve, or the most costly etc. Understanding relative importance, and reflecting it in your work, is one of the most difficult rules to apply.

For answers, look here (coming soon).


PythagoreanTheoremSmall-600-borderLogic is not as simple as the Pythagorean theorem. Well, that is only true when we are dealing with abstract ideas, rather than math.

The rules of logic will ensure that every conclusion you reach can be assuredly reached based on the data you provided. Every statement you make must be fully provable based on your supporting evidence. (Usually an inductive statement will be more challenging, as deductive statements are ‘mathematical’ in form).

The rules of logic will also ensure that you have not built in any bias in your problem statement, or in any of the fact-finding questions. Classic examples of that are leading-questions asked during interviews.

Learn to detect and avoid logical fallacies and cognitive biases

Logical fallacies: Can you conclude that the market for this product is unfavorable based on the fact that it is fragmented? Not necessarily. It really will depend on what your criteria are. Can you state that an argument is incorrect just because of who proposed it? Not really – you need to evaluate it on its own merits (this is the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, one of a multiple of mind traps we will discuss).

Cognitive biases: Do you pick out a possible solution out of a set of options available, just because this is the one most recently discussed – maybe it’s everywhere in the news, or in the company? Maybe the one proposed months ago, now forgotten, is the correct answer. You would be falling for the ‘recency’ bias, one of many biases we fall victim to without consciously realizing it.

For answers, look here (coming soon).


creativity-CROPCreating something out of nothing.

Well, it’s not really out of nothing, it’s just that the specific, preexisting elements of the creation (colors, shapes, products, customer needs, personal experiences) had never been put together quite this way before.

Creativity is misunderstood. So is logic. It is often proposed that a problem must be solved either through creativity or through logic. In reality, every problem needs both.

There are specific points in the problem-solving process where creativity makes the difference between a good solutions and a substandard one. Can you come up with more options for us to evaluate (problem statement)? Can you look at the same data and create a different meaning than all the rest of us? (synthesis). Creativity accounts for a qualitative difference in the answers to problems.

But creativity also does not spring out of nothing. It is based in experience, knowledge, fed into a brain that is adept at making new connections. A fascinating topic, we will get into a lot more later.

Creativity is the most important way you add value

Something out of nothing: Can you create new meaning out of old material? Can you add new perspectives to the tried and true? These are the areas where creativity is desperately needed and will make the difference between an exceptionally good solution and a ‘more-of-the-same’ one. Creativity is also fed by knowledge and experience, and can be practiced!

For answers, look here (coming soon).


brain-synapsesThere is no way to overstate the value of our ability to learn. It is the ultimate survival skill, and, at the same time, the ultimate skill for excellence. It reaches from top to bottom, and affects the quality of our life at all possible levels.

Can you learn from mistakes? Can you even learn to recognize when you have made a mistake? Can you detect where you are lacking knowledge? Can you add to your knowledge? Can you retain old learning, so you can build on it? How aware are you of  ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’, and what are you doing about it?

Learning, as the accumulation of experience and knowledge, is an active process of physically changing the morphology of our brains. Your brain changes every time you learn something: If you are successful in retaining knowledge (i.e. move it from short-term storage to long-term memory), then new connections, and even new neurons are formed. (Remember the belief that neurons are fixed at birth and you only lose them as you age? Not true. Brain plasticity allows you to expand your brain at any age).

Few topics are as fast-evolving and fascinating as the brain mechanisms of learning. There are exponential benefits to learning how to learn, as knowledge is not just cumulative, but multiples exponentially! The more you know, the more you can build new connections. An explosion of creativity.

You must become efficient in growing your knowledge.

Knowledge: Gathering facts is increasing knowledge. But that is only the beginning. To know is one thing, to understand is quite another. That is where learning comes in.

Learning:  Harnessing the power of the brain to store information in different parts of the brain, and to create connections, is key to developing deep understanding. We know more every day about how this works and how to leverage it, thanks to the work of a great number of neuroscientists now involved in the field. Aim for long-term memory storage, with multiple connections across areas of the brain (numbers, faces, emotions, motion, vision, auditory), to create deeper learning. This is the kind you can build on to develop deep expertise – and wisdom.

For answers, look here (coming soon).


statue-of-athena-george-atsametakisWhat is courage doing in a blog about problem-solving?

A lot.

Courage is what gets you from ‘let’s just do this for now’, to ‘let’s push harder and get what we need’. It gets you from ‘I can’t really tell the executives bad news’, to ‘They should know. I just have to find the right way of communicating’.

Courage is about fear. And fear is everywhere. It is in our understanding of our skills and abilities (is it enough?), to our interactions with others (will they still like us? Will I get punished?).

Courage is doing the right thing – for them, for you, for all. Period. It is essential in making good decisions. Because fear will make you omit key parts of the problem (I can’t do anything about this; don’t touch that), consciously or unconsciously. Fear will make you change your messages, not just your communication of the right message. Fear will make you take shortcuts. Fear will never let you reach understanding or wisdom. Courage is a constant fight, but essential.

Exercise your courage to develop wisdom

Courage: Courage works just like another muscle. It is a mental muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Wisdom in decision-making can only be reached when we can honestly face the questions, and equally honestly face the facts – the numbers, the years, the emotions. You will need courage to beat the survivalist fears.

Marina K
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