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Leading Off
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Problems, big and small, abound in business, society, and our personal lives. The ability to answer the seemingly simple question, “What should I do?” is becoming increasingly difficult as our environments grow more uncertain and complex. As a result, problem-solving skills are in great demand. McKinsey research shows that organizations that have top-quartile problem-solving capabilities earn 3.5 times higher total shareholder returns than those in the bottom quartile. This week, let’s explore some structured approaches that can improve your problem-solving aptitude.
Illustration of a cone above a square
Clearly define the problem before rushing to solve it
Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Before you start thinking about solutions, you first must understand and clearly articulate the problem. In this episode of The McKinsey Podcast, Charles Conn, former CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation and Rhodes House, describes a seven-step problem-solving process that can provide the structure and clarity needed to (perhaps counterintuitively) encourage creativity. The first step is to dedicate sufficient time to exploring and defining the problem and why it needs to be solved. The team can then disaggregate the various components of the problem, prioritize which of those have the biggest impact, and begin their analyses. Shortchanging this critical first step could lead to wasted time and resources (for example, if those resources are allocated to solving the wrong problems).
That’s the percentage of survey respondents across Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries who identify problem solving as the most relevant 21st-century skill, according to Wiley’s Digital Skills Gap Index 2021. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report reveals similar sentiments among employers globally: critical thinking and complex problem solving top the list of skills of the future. In fact, four of the top five skills on the report’s “top ten skills of 2025” are directly linked to problem solving, indicating that employers believe these skill sets will only grow in importance.
“Rookie problem solvers show you their analytic process and mathematics to convince you that they are clever. That’s sometimes called APK, the anxious parade of knowledge. But seasoned problem solvers show you differently.”
That’s McKinsey alumni Charles Conn and Robert McLean in a McKinsey Quarterly article on six problem-solving mindsets to crack even the most complex problems under uncertain conditions. To start, they recommend channeling your inner four-year-old by staying curious and recognizing the power of asking questions. Next, embrace ambiguity, widen the aperture through which you view the problem, be willing to experiment, and crowdsource diverse perspectives to improve the ideas generated. And finally, return to an elementary-school activity: “show and tell” the problem-solving process and the logic behind the potential solution to drive decision makers to action.
A photo of Angela Hwang, Pfizer’s head of biopharmaceuticals
Few businesses have experienced the need for effective problem solving as intensely as vaccine developers did during the COVID-19 pandemic. While pressure can sometimes feel debilitating, many pharma and biotech companies rose to the challenge. In this interview, Angela Hwang, Pfizer’s head of biopharmaceuticals, discusses how the company was able to develop and begin distributing a vaccine within eight months. “When the goal is so clear, what happens next is incredible problem solving that allows you to find the ‘white spaces’ and identify what you can remove to anticipate potential barriers,” she says. “Changing our goal setting and problem solving to match the issue at hand were probably the two greatest adaptions in leadership practices on this entire journey.”
Illustration of a sphere on top of a blue wave shape
When it comes to problem solving within a team, take extra care to not fall prey to individual biases and collective behaviors that may thwart efforts to come up with great solutions. One bias that may manifest itself in a brainstorming session is people’s desire to conform or avoid conflict. Anonymous brainstorming and silent voting are two ways to ensure that all ideas are considered and to prevent mediocre ideas from taking the spotlight. Similarly, drawing on analogies can spark inspiration—unless that analogy is only superficially similar to the problem at hand, in which case it can lead to futile solutions. To avoid this trap, set up exercises to map the similarities between the two problems, past and present, and the conditions under which the solution would work in the new context.
Lead by first defining, then solving, problems.
— Edited by Dana Sand, an editorial production manager in McKinsey’s Cleveland office
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