Why Companies Are So Bad at Problem-Solving & What You Can Do About it

A systematic approach always beats the highest paid person's opinion

In business, fast thinking is rewarded.

This leads us down a slippery slope.

8 out of 10 problems people work hard to solve are the wrong ones.

Hence we see back-and-forth discussions all over the place.

People don’t take enough time to assess and disaggregate the problems they want to solve.

In every management meeting, I see people jump to conclusions.

Problem → Decision

For example, a problem could be that our revenue is declining. The typical management reaction is:

We should to A.

We have to communicate B.

Anything else? No? OK, let’s go.

I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the point.

It’s called the expert trap. People over-rely on their experience.

When you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail

It leads to short-term solutions and ignores long-term challenges.

It may resolve a symptom but the root cause remains. New trouble will emerge.

What to do instead

Step 1: Define the problem

Before you start solving a problem, ensure you're addressing the right one.

Revisit the TOSCA framework from our session. Try to define a current challenge you're facing at work:

  • What is the trouble? What is the status quo and where do you aspire to be?

  • Who is the owner? Who will decide on the success of the problem-solving process?

  • What are your objectives? How will you know that your successful?

  • What constraints are you facing? What's out of scope for your approach?

  • Who are the actors involved? What do they want? How big is their influence?

Step 2: Break it down

If you decide to do it properly and disaggregate the problem, one key principle makes or breaks your approach.

The principle of MECE.

MECE = Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive

MECE principle — image created by the author

Mutually Exclusive means that when you break down the problem into parts, each part should be separate and distinct from the others. This way you can analyze them one by one.

Collectively Exhaustive means that when you consider all those separate parts together, they cover the entire problem or topic.

A problem breakdown that’s not MECE is messy

An Example MECE Breakdown

Let’s say we want to address the problem of the declining Bluefin Tuna population in the Atlantic Ocean.

A MECE breakdown would look as follows:

Example MECE problem breakdown — image created by the author

In the first level of decomposition, we look at different kinds of threats to Bluefin Tuna. The main ones are human harvest and general ocean conditions.

To ensure we’re MECE and don’t overlook anything, we add other threats as the final branch.

We further disaggregate the threat of human harvesting into the different types: Commercial and sports fishery. Again, we add other types of fishery to ensure we don’t miss anything.

From here you can plan your analyses, find resources, and build a project plan.

That’s a solid basis for finding solutions.

Key Takeaways

Don’t fall for the expert trap.

We all rely on previous experiences and knowledge. For solving complex problems that’s dangerous.

Instead, work to understand the problem first. Use the TOSCA Framework to see it from all angles.

Then break it down.

The MECE way helps to dissect problems better.

Take the time to dig into problems and not just look for quick answers.

This will help you find better solutions that fix the real issue, not just the small parts you see first.

Get others to think the same way.

What problem are you breaking down today?

If you want a 1:1 decision-making coaching, choose your spot here:

Talk soon,

Alex