Bulletproof Problem Solving by Charles Conn and Robert McLean

Bulletproof Problem Solving cover


Big Idea

Complex problem solving is a critical tool in your toolkit. It is indispensable in both your professional and personal lives.

Seven Key Takeaways

—Complex problem solving is a core skill for ambitious people in the 21st century.
—People often misunderstand the word ‘problem’ in problem solving. It doesn’t only mean making something unwanted go away. In a broader sense, problems represent gaps between where you are and where you want to be. Problem solving is how you get from Point A to Point B.
—Problem definition is critically important. Forget what you heard about setting SMART goals. Adopt a more robust approach that defines the problem at the highest level and focuses on outputs.
—Business problems begin with a decomposition of financial performance. Use return on invested capital as your starting point.
—Break problems into parts using logic trees. Logic trees sharpen your problem definition and help you understand an issue more deeply.
—Hypotheses emerge from logic trees. And you create work plans to test these hypotheses.
—Problem solving is an iterative process. You can iterate as often as necessary, even daily when new information demands it.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Learn the Bulletproof Problem Solving Approach

—Bulletproof problem solving is a seven-step approach to complex problem solving.
—It was developed and codified over time by consultants at McKinsey & Co.
—You will avoid costly mistakes by completing each step. They are all essential.
—The most crucial step is disaggregating a problem into its parts using logic trees. This step reveals the structure of a problem.
—To solve a problem efficiently, you must prioritize your analyses and eliminate unnecessary work. The most efficient sequence for performing your analysis is called the critical path.
—Create a work plan that defines the actions you will take to test a hypothesis. Use work plans when working alone or in a group.

Chapter 2: Define the Problem

—The first step is to define the problem.
—If you overlook this step, you are making a costly mistake.
—A robust problem definition drives the rest of the analysis.
—Components of a problem definition include boundaries of the problem, timeframe for resolution, and the level of accuracy required.
—You can improve your problem definition by widening the scope, relaxing constraints, or adding diversity to the team defining the problem.
—You can update your problem definition later if necessary.

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Chapter 3: Problem Disaggregation and Prioritization

—Problem disaggregation is the second step. In this step, you break the problem down into manageable pieces using logic trees and cleaving frames.
—When you begin your analysis, start with factor trees. As you gain a better understanding of the problem, incorporate deductive logic trees and decision trees.
—Use inductive trees when you have ample details but are unsure about their relationship. Work backward through the tree towards root causes and the problem definition.
—For all business problems, start with a deductive tree that decomposes profit or return on invested capital.
—You use cleaving frames to split a problem along two dimensions. You will often use a 2×2 matrix to reveal insights from these frames.
—Prioritization is the third step in the problem solving process. —Once you have a well-developed structure using a hypothesis tree, you will prioritize your activities by targeting the branches that yield the most insight with the least effort.

Chapter 4: Build a Great Workplan and Team Processes

—Building the work plan is the fourth step in the process. In this step, invest the necessary time to plan your work plan properly. This investment will make your problem solving efforts more efficient.
—Focus your work plan on the first hypothesis that you defined in your critical path. The critical path is the optimal order for you to complete your analyses.
—Your work plans should be short, requiring no more than 2-3 weeks to complete. And a work plan should address a group or chunk of the questions you seek to answer.
—A one-day answer is a tool that states your best understanding at a given time. For one-day answers, you follow the situation-complication-resolution format. First, you briefly describe the situation. Then you assert the deviation that gives rise to the problem. And you finish by proposing your best solution to the problem given your current knowledge. A one-day answer should be short.

Chapter 5: Conduct Analyses

—In the fifth step, you conduct an analysis.
—Use heuristics — i.e., rules of thumb — to understand the levers of the problem. However, don’t over-rely on heuristics. They are seldom a perfect fit.
—You can use questions like ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘when,’ ‘why,’ ‘where,’ and ‘how’ to direct your work.
—Performing a root cause analysis or asking ‘why’ five times can help you see past proximate causes to uncover underlying issues.

Chapter 6: Big Guns of Analysis

—Some complex problems require that you use sophisticated analytical techniques.
—However, apply the approaches defined in the previous chapters before jumping into highly technical analysis. Poorly structured analysis wastes time and effort regardless of the tool that you use.
—Machine learning can be a powerful tool. But it also requires care and diligence to avoid big mistakes.

Chapter 7: Synthesize Results and Tell a Great Story

—The sixth step in the problem solving process is to formulate conclusions to your analyses. The seventh and final step is to tell a great story.
—Synthesis means that you bring all of the pieces of your analysis and draw conclusions. In this step, you will often arrive at conclusions you failed to notice while completing the previous steps.
—Your most recent one-day answer is the starting point for telling a great story. It is the basis for the introduction of your memo or presentation.
—Usually, you want to state your conclusion up-front. However, if you anticipate your audience will find your findings unpalatable, use a decision tree format that leads the audience to your conclusion.
—Use a storyboard to plan what you will say while delivering a presentation.

Chapter 8: Problem Solving with Long Time Frames and High Uncertainty

—Most problem solving situations include a significant degree of uncertainty.
—It is essential to understand the level of uncertainty and adjust your approach accordingly.
—Risk and uncertainty are synonymous.
—The steps you can take to control risk include: buying information, acquiring options, paying for insurance, and making low-risk moves that build capabilities.
—You can break long, uncertain timeframes into intermediate steps. This approach can increase flexibility and stability while you develop capabilities and invest in assets.

Chapter 9: Wicked Problems

—Expansive and seemingly intractable problems are called ‘wicked problems.’ They are complex, lack cause-and-effect relationships, and often require large groups of people to change their behavior to solve.
—You can apply bulletproof problem solving to solve seemingly intractable issues known as wicked problems.
—The seven-step problem solving method is an appropriate approach to solving wicked problems.

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Chapter 10: Becoming a Great Problem Solver

—Problem solving is no longer solely the purview of science, engineering, and management consulting. It is critical in all walks of life and professional endeavors.
—Becoming a great problem solver requires a commitment to practicing all of the steps outlined in this book in real-world situations.