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Ex Mckinsey Partner- Charles Conn Explains intricacies of Problem-Solving

GGI Business Review is a new business series, capturing snapshots of the GGI Harvard Case Style Masterclass by CEOs and Industry Leaders.

This particular piece is a snapshot from Charles Conn's GGI Masterclass.


The World Economic Forum in its Future of Jobs Report 2020, placed complex Problem-Solving at #1 in its top 10 skills for jobs. This comes at a time when people all around the world are looking for gaining relevant skills that would give them that extra edge over others at work or set them apart at their next job interview.

Charles Conn, the co-author of Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, an Ex Mckinsey Partner, walks us through the intricacies of problem-solving that would help us effectively solve complex problems.

In the old world, people would reward you for what you had learned and so the people went to colleges to learn about different disciplines like Law, Finance, Medicine, and Engineering. These people put their body of learning to work by practicing these disciplines for many years.

But things aren’t the same anymore as nobody pays you for what you know. Today, you get rewarded for what you do with what you know and Problem Solving is at the heart of it.

Problem-Solving is decision-making when there is complexity and uncertainty that rules out obvious answers, and problem-solving is not taught but implied. Combining problem-solving with different skills like creativity and good communication can be beneficial for people looking to gain that advantage over others around them.

Bulletproof Problem Solving – 6-Step Process

1. Defining the Problem

It is the most important aspect of problem-solving because a lot of times, people run off into problem-solving without thinking hard about what the problem is. This is why it is essential to prepare a problem statement that defines the problem in a very tight and succinct manner and tells us what is it exactly what we are trying to solve.

In this step, we must ask and answer the following questions before we get into problem-solving:

1. What audience are you addressing and who is the decision-maker?

2. What are their concerns and issues around the decision?

3. What is off-limits or not under consideration?

4. How would the decision-maker judge a successful problem-solving effort?

5. How quickly is the answer needed?

6. What level of accuracy is needed?

It is also important to note that whatever your first caveat is in solving a problem, may not be the final caveat. Hence, it becomes important to come back and constantly re-evaluate the problem statement.

2. Disaggregating a Problem

It is the most fun and the most difficult part of problem-solving. Disaggregate a problem into pieces, so you can see all the pieces clearly and use analytical frameworks to crack the problem. To break a problem into pieces, we should start asking small questions around the problem and make hypotheses. Making simple issue trees/hypotheses can be very powerful in cracking a problem as it will help dig deep and gain insights.

Sydney Airport is a great example of disaggregating a problem into pieces to find solutions. When faced with the task of building a new airport, the officials at the Sydney Airport used an issue tree to break down the problem of capacity utilization to avoid the construction of a new airport by identifying ways of utilizing the existing capacity.

3. Decision Making and Prioritization

Great problem solvers are very good at prioritization, and oftentimes use mental frameworks for prioritizing their tasks. They focus on things that have the biggest impact on their lives and on the things, which they have the most ability to influence. Prioritizing is necessary because it is as much important to understand what not to do as it is to understand what to do.

4. Workplans and Team Process

When we prepare an issue tree for solving a problem, it is important that for each separate issue, we have a hypothesis and a knowledge of what analytical tools we will use to solve that problem. It is important to note that we should not do any analyses that are not backed up by a clear and testable hypothesis. While in this process, we must figure out the best analyses so that we can go fast and avoid extra work. We should use one tool while working in teams:

The One Day Answer -

It is a kind of Elevator Pitch for a business problem. You might find yourself in the elevator with a senior or a client who may ask you about the updates on a task. So, here you should always be ready with a crisp and clear answer about the problem you are working on.

According to Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, humans are prone to biases and that is why it becomes important to set up teams intelligently, to avoid or control these biases. The more diverse the teams are in terms of ethnicity, gender, and family background, the less likely that we will have the same biases and the higher the chances of solving the problem quickly.

5. Critical Analysis

This step involves the usage of different tools for solving problems. We can use different heuristics for this purpose, for example, the Occam’s Razor, Pareto’s 80/20 Principle, Bayesian Thinking or another method that is commonly used by economists, i.e., the Expected Value Method.

Another important tool for performing critical analyses is the use of the ‘5 WHY’ method which is also known as ‘Root Cause Analysis'. We can use this method to effectively get to the root of any problem and explore the reasons behind its existence.

6. Synthesize findings and communicate

Clever people feel done when they have completed the analytic work, but they forget to synthesize those findings in the form of a story. We should tell a story that links the conclusion back to the problem statement. Here, we need to lead with action steps or pose a series of questions to motivate action in the audience. Additionally, if we need to convince senior people about a decision we made, then we need to get better at storytelling because a majority of the humans are visual thinkers and understand better when anything is explained through the storytelling method.

7. Mindsets of great problem solvers

While it is important to learn how to solve problems, it is equally important to understand the mindset that helps us do that effectively. A great problem solver has a curious mind which is always asking the ‘WHY’ behind the things. Curiosity is the most important aspect of being a great problem solver and it reduces as we get older.

While being curious, it is also important to be an imperfectionist, with a tolerance for ambiguity.

Third and one of the most important traits of being a great problem solver is to develop a Dragonfly- eye view of the world, where we analyze a problem from multiple perspectives before trying to solve it.

Another important feature of being a great problem solver is being a restless experimenter who buys and trades information in the face of uncertainty.

While solving a problem it is important to acknowledge that the smartest people are not in the room, or that even need to be in the room, because these smart people are generally experts who have a set way of doing things that they know are correct, and this method might not always be fun.

Finally, a great problem solver always knows that Storytelling begets action and that a great problem solver is always a great storyteller as well.


Charles R. Conn is a Canadian and American CEO and conservationist and ex-partner at Mckinsey & Co. In 2019 he was the CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation. Previously, he was the warden and global CEO of Rhodes House and the Rhodes Trust, the organization responsible for administering the Rhodes Scholarship from 2013 to 2018.


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