The Right Way to Solve Complex Business Problems

The Right Way to Solve Complex Business Problems is the title of a december 04, 2018* episode of IdeaCast, the podcast from Harvard Business Review. In this episode, Curt Nickisch (HBR) interviews Corey Phelps, a strategy professor at McGill University and author.

*I’ve listened the podcast in early April 2019
The interview on podcast and its transcription can be found here:

The subject is on solving complex business problems, which piqued my interest, wondering if the interview would mention the Logical Thinking Process, an approach precisely about logically solving complex problems.

Complex problems are those related to dynamic interactions in the system and/or intangible factors like beliefs, false assumptions, policies constraints and the like.

The interview starts with statements that great problem solvers are hard to find, problem-solving is in demand and it’s considered the top skill for success at management consulting firms. According to a World Economic Forum report, more than one-third of all jobs across all industries will require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills by 2020.

I found this very good news for all people confident in their own problem solving skills, yet too many problem solvers are jumping to solutions for different reasons, including the way human brain is structured and how it works, to cognitive biases or expertise trap, Phelps explains.

Problem-solving skills can be improved by following a disciplined method. The one advertised by Mr Phelps is what he calls the four S’s method. These are:

  1. State the problem
  2. Structure the problem
  3. Solve the problem
  4. Sell the solution

Reminds me of the well-known and long around PDCA, without the option of iteration in case the solution doesn’t work, it seems.

A glance at the content of Mr Phelps co-authored book “Cracked it!: How to solve big problems and sell solutions like top strategy consultants” mentions the “TOSCA framework” for problem statement. This is an acronym made of the first letters of the words:

  • Trouble (or symptoms)
  • Owner (of the problem)
  • Success (how to assess the solution)
  • Constraints (that limit the problem-solving effort)
  • Actors (stakeholders)

TOSCA is somewhat similar to the 5W1H popular in industry since the… 1940s?

The interview goes on about creativity tools or methods to craft solutions to a problem.

There is no mention of logic or rationality, and certainly not of the Logical Thinking Process (LTP). One the one hand I am sad, because LTP still doesn’t make it into the limelight, on the other hand I am a kind of glad to keep a competitive advantage over my fellow problem solvers with my knowledge and mastery of the LTP.

About the proposed approach presented in the podcast, I looks to me like a repackaged but downgraded version of PDCA and 5W1H, with addition of the trendy Design Thinking. The mention to the top consulting firms as reference regarding problem solving does not convince me at all.

A catchy title, but is this really the right way to solve complex business problems?


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