Six problem-solving mindsets for uncertain times

Six problem-solving mindsets for uncertain times

In today’s climate of constant change and ambiguity, new problems and challenges arise which require perseverance and flexibility to overcome. Learn about six mutually reinforcing approaches to problem solving in times of uncertainty.

Economic disruptions, geopolitical unrest, the pandemic and the recent jaw-dropping breakthrough of AI applications have pushed the world of business into the unknown. The constant change and ambiguity bring a new set of problems and challenges which require perseverance and flexibility to deal with.

There are 6 problem-solving mindsets that McKinsey & Company recommends for effective handling of obstacles during times of uncertainty.

#1 Be ‘ever-curious’

Somewhere between preschool and the boardroom, we tend to stop being curious and start to adopt human biases in understanding problems that cause us to shut down the range of solutions too early. Better—and more creative—solutions come from being curious about the broader range of potential answers. Hence, keep asking “why” and be open to all possibilities, even the ones that seem least likely.

#2 Tolerate ambiguity—and stay humble!

Good problem solvers are not know-it-all masterminds. They are, instead, those who do a lot of trial and error and have the courage to challenge solutions that imply certainty. By embracing imperfection, with epistemic humility, we have a higher potential to get close to the best final solution.

#3 Take a dragonfly-eye view

Dragonfly eyes can see multiple perspectives not available to humans. Learn to widen the aperture of a problem or view it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar tropes into which our pattern-recognizing brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify obstacles or opportunities beyond the periphery of our normal vision.

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#4 Pursue occurrent behavior

Risk-embracing problem solvers find a solution path by constantly experimenting. In other words, they create data rather than just look for what has been collected. Experiments help test hypotheses and reduce uncertainty. This is particularly effective when dealing with new problems, such as market entry.

#5 Tap into collective intelligence and the wisdom of the crowd

Chris Bradley, a coauthor of Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, observed that “it’s a mistake to think that on your team you have the smartest people in the room. They aren’t there. They’re invariably somewhere else.” Crowdsourcing invites the smartest people in the world to work with you. Invite members outside your team to the table and draw upon their diverse experiences and expertise. However, bear in mind the time, cost and limitations attached with this method.

#6 Show and tell to drive action

Once a solution is settled, it’s important to present it in a way that persuades stakeholders and facilitates change. Rookie problem solvers show you their analytic process and mathematics to convince you that they are clever. But seasoned problem solvers show you differently. The most elegant problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. The late economist Herb Simon put it this way: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” Start by being clear about the action that should flow from your problem solving and findings: the governing idea for change. Then find a way to present your logic visually so that the path to answers can be debated and embraced.


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