The world is the most complex and competitive than it has ever been. And it will only grow more complex and competitive. The global economy is contracting while a handful of technology companies continue to grow. If you are finishing an undergraduate or graduate degree, you may feel overwhelmed and helpless by the prospect of entering a shrinking job market. Or, if you’re a young professional, the prospect of building a career that you find financially, professionally, and personally satisfying may appear distant.
You may question your preparation. Most of what you learned in college is of little practical value. Your internship and work experience provided a view into how the professional world works. And perhaps you gained a better understanding of what interests you. But you may wonder how to thrive in this environment. This is good news. Your peers also feel unprepared. And you can gain a competitive advantage over them by developing the right skills. These aren’t skills that you learn in an academic program. And they’re not skills that employers will teach you. But, if you invest the time and effort to develop these skills, employers will reward you. Or, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, customers and investors will reward you. You will outcompete your peers, land jobs, win promotions, and maximize your contribution. Or, you will chart an independent path and maximize your odds of success. It won’t be easy. It will take much work. And it will often push you outside your comfort zone. But, it’s here you will find your professional edge.
For a young professional, complex problem solving skills are the foundation of your professional edge. Combined with complementary soft skills and execution skills, you leverage them to accelerate past your peers and towards ultra-high achievement. More importantly, you develop into the best version of yourself and empower yourself to impact the world positively.
Complex problems are novel, ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings (WEF, 2016). Unlike simpler problems, in complex problems, the correct answer is elusive. You cannot ferret it out. Therefore, you must base your decision on incomplete data. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns.” That is, you don’t know what you don’t know. It is also the domain of contemporary business. Constant changes in financial performance, management, and the industry environment introduce unpredictability and flux (Snowden et al., 2007).
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Not all problems are complex problems. There are three other categories of problems. First, simple problems are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Imagine you’re a cashier on your first day of work at a fast-food restaurant. A customer orders a hamburger without pickles. But you don’t remember how to enter “hold the pickles” into the cash register. This is a simple problem. Second, complicated problems — unlike simple ones — can have multiple right answers. While there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. Imagine that you’re a doctor and a patient arrives with abdominal pain. The patient has already seen other doctors who failed to diagnose it correctly. This represents a complicated problem. Third, chaotic problems are highly unordered, more so than complex problems. There is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect. The way forward is determined based on emerging patterns (Snowden et al., 2007). Take, for example, the 9/11 attacks. In the hours following the attacks, first responders and government leaders needed to establish order as they rapidly assessed the situation. As you can see, simple and complicated problems are less extreme than complex problems. Chaotic problems are more extreme and, fortunately, less frequent.
Fundamentally, complex problem solving skills enable you to change a complex system from its current state to the desired state. A complex system has many components that interact with each other. This concept captures everything at every scale in our universe. Examples include the Earth’s climate, national economies, the human brain, a business, and ultimately the entire universe. However, understanding a complex system’s components does not convey an automatic understanding of the whole system’s behavior (Miller et al., 2007). For example, you can understand how neurons, glial cells, neural stem cells, and blood vessels comprise the human brain. But this does not explain how Einstein conceived of the theory of relativity. Nor does it explain how Mozart composed the “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute.” This limitation complicates our ability to influence these systems. As humans, we constantly strive to control our environment and the systems that surround us. We seek to shift systems from their current state to a more desirable state. For example, we might seek to grow our business’s sales by 25% this year without reducing prices or eroding our profit margin. Complex problem solving skills represent our ability to move a complex system from Point A to Point B.
It’s imperative to master the most important complex problem solving techniques. There are different approaches to complex problem solving. We focus on the four most important ones. By mastering them, you equip yourself to tackle any complex problem. The first approach is causation. This means that you seek to find the components of the problem that cause the undesired or desired outcome. The undesired outcome is your current state, i.e., where you are right now. The desired outcome is where you want to go. By eliminating the causes of the undesired outcome and imposing the causes of the desired outcome, you achieve your objective.
The causal approach to complex problem solving is the cornerstone of strategy consulting. Two former senior partners at McKinsey & Co. — the leading global strategy consultancy — highlight the best practice for applying the causal approach. The seven steps to their process are problem definition, disaggregation, prioritization, work plans, analysis, synthesis, and communication (Conn et al., 2018). Mastering the causation approach is the first step in developing your professional edge.
Effectuation — the second approach — inverts causation. There are two fundamental components of causation. The first is defining your objective. And the second is developing strategies to achieve your objective. Effectuation flips these components by first defining our capabilities. And second, we define different goals that we could achieve with our capabilities (Read et al., 2005). Effectuation works particularly well in unpredictable environments. Instead of attempting to foresee an unknowable future, it instructs us to focus on what we can control. Causation, on the other hand, applies well to environments where patterns have already emerged. With practice, you will develop a sense of when to apply each of these contrasting problem solving approaches.
Design thinking — the third approach — complements the first two approaches. There are three basic steps to the design thinking process: empathize, prototype, and refine (Linke, 2017). Empathize means that you deeply understand the problem from the perspective of the end-user. Based on this insight, you rapidly prototype a solution as inexpensively as possible. Then you refine your prototype based on feedback from your end-user. As end-users validate your design, you increase its fidelity incrementally from a simple sketch to a functioning product. You can apply design thinking in tandem with causation or effectuation. Combined with causation, it clarifies your desired state. Combined with effectuation, it is an efficient approach for increasing both control and predictability.
Systems thinking — the fourth approach — integrates the other problem solving approaches (Senge, 1990). It instructs you to see the whole of a system without losing sight of its parts. In practice, this means representing both your current state and your desired state as systems diagrams. At low fidelity, think boxes and arrows on a whiteboard showing the components and their relationships to one another. At high fidelity, think robust dashboards pulling real-time data. The difference between the current and desired systems represents the problem for you to solve. To change the system, you target specific leverage points (Meadows, 1999). Regardless of the approach you choose for tackling a specific problem, applying systems thinking principles increases your ability to solve it.
It is critical to complement your complex problem solving skills with mental management skills. This means that you’re able to manage the perceptions that others have of you, persuade them to do things, and manage your own mind. First, it is critical to have a strategy for managing other people’s perceptions of you in professional settings. The Edge framework is a valuable tool for developing this strategy. It stresses the importance of making a sustained effort to help others appreciate your value through enrichment, delight, and guidance (Huang, 2020). Second, you must develop the ability to persuade others. The Edge framework is a subset of the broader topic of persuasion. The art of persuasion is called rhetoric. And, like complex problem solving, rhetorical skills require conceptual mastery and deliberate practice. The juice is worth the squeeze. Rhetoric influences different aspects of your life (Heinrichs, 2020). And it will improve your success as a complex problem solver by enabling you to persuade others of the value of your solution.
Third, effective management of your own mind creates a solid substrate for complex problem solving. Complex problem solving is an area of metacognition. Metacognition, in simple terms, means thinking about how to think. And metacognition is a key area of executive functioning skills. Executive functioning is the diverse set of skills we use to get things done, both in the short-term and long-term. The twelve primary areas of executive functioning include:
In addition to metacognition, young professionals greatly benefit from a self-awareness of their executive functioning strengths and weaknesses. Up until our mid-20’s, our brains are still forming our executive functioning skills. After this point, research into adult neuroplasticity demonstrates that we can still change and grow, but it requires more effort (Dweck, 2006). Strengthening these skills — or developing effective coping strategies — significantly enhances your ability to perform. After all, performance means getting things done.
—Planning & prioritization
—Working memory (Dawson et al., 2016).
Complex problem solving links to execution at both the micro and macro levels. At the micro-level, executive functioning skills are critical for individuals to accomplish short-term and long-term goals. Here, complex problem solving provides the strategic and analytical foundation. And executive functioning skills drive the successful attainment of those goals. As individuals assemble themselves into teams and organizations, they must learn to execute at the macro level. As previously discussed, this means moving the output of a system from its current state to the desired state. These progressions are part of the complex problem solving process. For example, in the causal approach, completing the work plan phase comprises the specific actions that close the gaps between the current and desired states. If the work plan is simply a scaled-back experiment designed to see if a solution will work, increasing the work plan’s scale in the next iteration will lead to execution.
A similar approach applies to design and systems thinking. In design thinking, problems are also solved iteratively by increasing the prototype’s fidelity until it’s a fully functional solution (validated by end-users). Systems thinking is nearly identical to design thinking in this sense. However, they often differ in the order of magnitude. Specifically, the scope of systems thinking should always capture the system that produces the primary output for the system. For example, if the primary output for a business is total profit, then the system should capture the whole business, i.e., all of the components that contribute to this output. Design thinking, on the other hand, can focus on a specific area of that system. An example of this would be how to set up the customer service center for a business to reduce customer wait times to less than ninety seconds, increase customer satisfaction, and reduce churn (i.e., the rate at which the business loses customers).
Effectuation takes a different — but complementary — approach to execution. It focuses on the reality that we have many options for what exact problem we want to solve. From there, it emphasizes proximity, networks, and other advantages available to the problem solver or organization in delivering an acceptable solution. By now, you are probably beginning to see the threads that tie these different approaches together.
Both sides of the employment relationship — the employer on one side and the employee on the other side — indicate the fundamental importance of complex problem solving skills in developing a professional edge. On the employer side, solving complexity is an increasingly valuable skill for organizations. 43% of business managers indicate that complexity slows growth, impedes their ability to respond quickly to competitive threats, and interferes with effective decision-making (Harvard, 2015). Most organizations grasp the reality that solving complexity requires employees skilled at complex problem solving. According to ManpowerGroup, the world’s third-largest staffing firm, finding talent with the right skills mix is challenging. Employers say problem solving is among the hardest skills to find in candidates (Manpower, 2018). Mastering a skill that employers find difficult to find in the labor market contributes greatly to your professional edge.
On the other side of the employment relationship, CEOs demonstrate the importance of complex problem solving in developing their professional edge. In a corporation, the CEO is the highest-ranked employee. Becoming a CEO of a large organization clearly demonstrates a professional edge. After all, having an edge means that you advance more quickly or further than others. And CEOs demonstrate the ability both to outperform and lead others throughout their careers. For many of these CEOs, complex problem solving skill development was a fundamental part of their early professional development.
Three examples illustrate this point. Harvard Business School (“HBS”) and McKinsey & Co. are — respectively — the MBA program and consultancy with the most alumni serving as Fortune 500 CEOs (McDonald, 2013). Complex problem solving is the foundation of the HBS case method, i.e., the teaching method used at HBS (Banham et al., 2019). On the other hand, McKinsey has built its business on complex problem solving (Conn et al., 2018). Companies, governments, and other organizations hire McKinsey to help them solve their toughest problems. While correlation does not indicate causation, there are two reasonable explanations for the success of these groups. First, HBS and McKinsey are in an advantageous position to pick winners. They leverage their prestige to recruit high potential talent to join their ranks. Later in their careers, these promising recruits realize their potential by becoming CEOs. Second, at HBS and McKinsey, people learn the complex problem solving skills that prepare them to thrive in their careers and ultimately lead large organizations. These explanations are not mutually exclusive. Equipping people with high professional potential with complex problem solving skills maximizes their chances of success.
Engineering education supports this conclusion. 34% of top-performing CEOs have engineering degrees compared to 32% with MBA degrees (Harvard, 2018). What’s an engineering degree fundamentally about? You guessed it: problem solving. Engineering is a profession of problem solving (Shaw, 2001). Jeffrey Sprecher, the founder of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, said it well. While he’s never had a job that related to his chemical engineering degree, he said, “[It] taught me about problem solving, and complex systems and the way things relate to each other, and business is really just that” (McGregor, 2018). Perhaps engineering majors are naturally problem solvers who self-select into an academic focus on problem solving. Or perhaps, as college applicants, they were intrigued by problem solving, and their degree taught them a practical skillset. Either way, chalk up another one for complex problem solving.
Complex problem solving applies everywhere. According to the World Economic Forum, complex problem solving is the most important skill across all industries (WEF, 2016). This bears repeating. It is the most important skill in industries such as financial services (e.g., Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Blackstone), technology (e.g., Apple, Microsoft, and Google), and professional services (e.g., McKinsey, Bain, and BCG). It is much more important to employers than social skills, technical skills, and cognitive abilities (WEF, 2016). Its broad applicability speaks to its foundational importance. In other words, complex problem solving enhances other skills when other skills are layered on top of it. For example, client-facing jobs require social skills. A skilled complex problem solver with social skills will excel in these roles. On the other hand, technical roles obviously require technical skills. The same formula applies. A skilled complex problem solver with technical skills will have a professional edge. Layering your skills in this way amplifies your edge.
The basic priorities of organizations further explain the universal importance of complex problem solving. All organizations seek to change state. Even an organization that seeks stability over time must sustain itself into the future. And time is a dimension of change. As previously mentioned, changing state means moving from a current state to the desired state, from Point A to Point B. When you decide that a problem exists, you perceive a gap between the results you get now from a certain line of endeavor and the results you would rather have had (Minto, 1996). For companies, this usually means more customers and more profit. These priorities also apply to other types of organizations. Nonprofit organizations want to expand their social impact while increasing their financial resources. Government organizations must continually demonstrate their relevance amidst a shifting political landscape. Problem solving is how you actually move from Point A to Point B. Organizations of all types will always prioritize closing gaps. And complex problem solving will always be the primary tool for doing so.
Complex problem solving skills apply to organizations at all points in their lifecycles. Organizations have four phases: startup, growth, maturity, and decline (Sirmon et al., 2010). Entrepreneurs launch startups to solve problems. Daniel Ek, a co-founder and the CEO of Spotify, described an entrepreneur as “someone [who] has an itch for a problem, and is annoyed enough by that problem to seek a solution for it” (Ek, 2012). Early in their lifecycle, startups must solve an existential complex problem. They must deliver a product where there’s both market demand and favorable economics. During this phase, problem solving methods favor effectuation and design thinking. Effectuation addresses the technical and financial capabilities of the organization. Design thinking addresses product design and customer demand.
The growth phase requires a different approach. People often refer to organizations in the growth phase as scale-ups. During this phase, business operations struggle to keep pace with revenue growth. Organizations lack processes to manage the increasing volume of business activities. They may also lack a coherent operating philosophy necessary to develop these processes (Sacks, 2020). During this phase, causation and design thinking are the dominant problem solving paradigms. Causation supplies the analytical brute force to identify where process improvements are necessary. And design thinking aids in the customer-centered creation of these processes. As a practitioner, it is critical to recognize these differences. Your success depends on it.
The maturity phase presents yet another set of challenges and opportunities. Mature organizations grow more slowly than startups and scale-ups. Whereas scale-ups lacked processes, mature companies are burdened by them (Gleeson, 2016). They may sell multiple products. And sales for their products may have plateaued. Most organizations in this phase favor the causation problem solving approach. It’s highly logical. And it favors exercises in prediction like forecasting. In this phase, you need causation, but you won’t always succeed with it. To persuade colleagues, customers, and partners to do things your way, you will need to make convincing arguments based on logic, values, and emotions (Heinrichs, 2020). Causation is well-suited to this. However, your secret to success will be leveraging the startup phase’s entrepreneurial techniques to gain an edge. Reinvigorating stale business units benefits from the fresh thinking that emerges from entrepreneurial problem solving techniques. This is the secret of top performers at mature companies (Liedtka, 2009).
The need for effectuation and design thinking is even more urgent in the decline phase. For organizations in decline, their existence may hinge on introducing new products or reinvigorating existing ones. Or it may also hinge on restructuring debt financing, replacing the management team, or other factors. These situations — often referred to as ‘turnarounds’ — require problem solvers to ‘live by corporate standards [and] breathe like an entrepreneur’ (Coleman, 2016). Knowing which complex problem solving approach to use is as important as mastering the approach.
Before deciding how to maximize your impact within an organization, you need to understand its primary output. Every organization should have a single output that it emphasizes above all others. For businesses seeking profitability, the primary output should be return on invested capital (‘ROIC’). ROIC means that investors put money into a company with the expectation of generating an attractive return. You buy a table, lemons, a pitcher, and signage for your lemonade stand. And you expect that your operation will generate a profit. The higher the return generated per dollar invested, the better. Some startups may prioritize growth over profit. This is simply another approach to maximizing ROIC. These startups often have raised capital from professional investors that allows them to spend money to grow without generating a profit. The logic is that this will increase the overall value of the startup. And investors will make more money when the startup either gets bought (by another company or investment fund) or goes public by listing its shares on a stock exchange. Again, money in, more money out.
It’s your responsibility to understand how you contribute to the overall performance of your organization. Early in your career, given that you will not immediately be the leader of a significant organization, you will not be the person ultimately accountable for the primary output’s performance. Instead, your department or team will be responsible for a driver of that output. For example, if you work in marketing, your team’s role is to identify and attract customers. Customers pay money for your product or service. And the revenue generated from your customers drives the return component of ROIC. After all, the return that a company generates is, by definition, sales minus expenditures. Notice how we’re decomposing ROIC, i.e., breaking it down into its parts. You need to perform this decomposition until you arrive at the activities and metrics that align with your job scope. Through your analysis, you will reveal gaps and misalignments. Do all of this in your free time. And don’t tell colleagues what you’re doing. Instead, demonstrate value through your questions and observations. Your objective is two-fold. First, you need to perform well in your current job by executing activities that drive ROIC. Second, position yourself to add value beyond your job description by closing gaps and misalignments. If you accomplish this two-fold objective, you will maximize your value in your current organization’s eyes. You will also increase your marketability to other organizations seeking to hire people like you.
Your model is the basis for applying complex problem solving skills. Your model is an Excel file on your computer where you define and solve a problem. Excel is the best program for developing your model because it provides flexibility for both structured and creative thinking. It is as simple as it is powerful. Specifically, you can easily create robust logic trees using its drawing tools. You can also, of course, perform sophisticated calculations using its spreadsheet functionality. And you have plenty of space to work with. At over one million rows, spreadsheets are over three miles long (and plenty wide, too). At a more general level, your model creates a central hub for the innumerable things happening around you. Fully reflect your thinking. Generate insights. Define your action plans. And update it daily. Your model is dynamic and iterative. Over time and through deliberate practice, your model will increasingly influence your external environment.
Your professional edge will be evident to your employer through your work quality and how you interact with others. There are two sides to any employment relationship. The first is how well the employee actually performs. The second is how the employer perceives the employee’s performance. While complex problem solving skills improve employee performance, communication and persuasion skills determine how others perceive them (Huang, 2020).
An internal marketing strategy maximizes your organization’s appreciation of your complex problem solving skills. As previously mentioned, the Edge Framework is an effective approach for maximizing your perceived value. It emphasizes enriching and delighting colleagues while actively guiding their perceptions (Huang, 2020). While this might sound off-putting to those who want their work to speak for itself, it addresses reality. Everyone you interact with at work will form opinions of you based on their perceptions and biases. Their opinions may not be fair, accurate, or unbiased. But they will often affect your future. Understanding the value that you add to an organization is only the first step. The second step requires communicating and persuading people of your value. It’s your responsibility to guide others’ perceptions of you through a strategy that enriches and delights your target audience.
Learning to influence organizations’ primary outputs helps you reframe two common misconceptions about what it takes to get ahead. First, many people misunderstand the value of professional networking. There is a pervasive view — particularly among people under the age of 30 — that knowing the right people or having a large network opens doors. Colleges and graduate programs perpetuate this narrative because meeting many new people is a key selling point to joining an academic community. This view is misleading. Indeed, networking can sometimes help you accomplish great things. But accomplishing great things will always help you develop a network (Grant, 2017). In other words, it’s about more than simply knowing people. Accomplishments that have value in the marketplace are what lead to job offers and other opportunities. For example, imagine that you studied computer science, specializing in artificial neural networks (“ANNs”). In earning your degree with honors, you completed your thesis about promising ANN applications in capital markets trading. To build your professional network, identify where — both physically and virtually — information technology directors at securities trading firms congregate. Then craft messaging that highlights your research, academic honors, and insight into improving their firms’ profitability. As you target the right people from an angle of accomplishment, complex problem solving, and value creation, you open doors to people who will employ you or do business with you. This approach helps you find meaningful work that truly interests you and avoid angling for favors from family and friends.
Second, many people misunderstand credentials. In the U.S., in the 21st century, college quality serves as an apparatus to convert wealth and status into achievement (Zhang, 2012). In other words, students from privileged backgrounds have a significant advantage in attending highly ranked colleges. However, they confuse the name on their college degree for real-world capabilities and accomplishment. In reality, highly ranked and selective colleges confer less of an advantage than their students, alumni, professors, and administrators would like to believe. The difference between students within a single college is much greater than the difference between students at different colleges (Zhang, 2012). In other words, the top students at UMass Amherst will have steeper professional trajectories than average students at Harvard. Students and alumni of highly selective colleges best not rest on their laurels.
The questionable relationship of academic content to the professional development of students compounds this issue. Research demonstrates that six factors are the most important drivers to professional satisfaction:
—Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
—Working with professors who care about students personally
—Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
—Working on a project across several semesters
—Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
—Being active in extracurricular activities (Gallup, 2014).
These drivers support the assertion that problem solving skill development is more important than college ranking. All six of these drivers create favorable conditions for problem solving development. None of them support the notion that college ranking leads to professional satisfaction. This highlights the pitfalls of credentialism. By all means, leverage your alumni networks. But avoid the trap of believing that the world owes you something based on whom your family knows or where you received your degree. It doesn’t. And this attitude will close doors by signaling that you don’t understand how to solve problems, add value, or play the game.
The three basic steps to developing complex problem solving skills capture the importance of both theory and practice. Developing advanced competency in a skill requires conceptual mastery, deliberate practice, and feedback loops. Complex problem solving is a skill just like golf or chess. Conceptual mastery means that you understand how to perform a skill correctly. With some research, you can find books and other resources highlighting the key concepts for complex problem solving. You invest the majority of your effort in deliberate practice. For all skills, the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain (Ericsson et al., 1993). To practice complex problem solving, continually refine your Excel model based on what you learn from executing your work plans.
Feedback loops are critical to minimizing the time needed to solve a complex problem. In technical terms, feedback loops exist when a system’s output feeds back into the same system’s input. There are two types of feedback loops, positive and negative. A negative feedback loop is self-correcting. And a positive feedback loop is self-reinforcing (Meadows, 1999). Both types of feedback are critical to developing complex problem solving skills. Negative feedback loops keep you on track. Positive feedback loops help you grow.
In practice, it’s also important to leverage both objective and subjective feedback. Feedback varies on its level of objectivity. Metrics are a type of objective feedback. You derive these metrics from the system’s primary output, whose state will change through the problem solving process. By tracking them regularly, you compare your behavior with your metrics. Then you make adjustments based on whether you’re achieving your desired results. Subjective feedback, on the other hand, comes from people’s opinions. But just because it’s subjective doesn’t mean you should discard it. People are adept at exposing each other’s blind spots. They’ll point things out to you that you weren’t aware of. Also, people are more creative for others than for themselves (Polman et al., 2011). This means that people are better at developing creative solutions for other people’s problems than they are for their own. Listen intently.
The best time to learn these skills is as soon as possible. You can start as early as high school. Adolescents aged 15-17 years old are already competent in developing creative problem solving skills (Kleibeuker et al., 2013). During college is ideal. At this age, the brain is rapidly developing its executive functioning skills (Dawson et al., 2016). And complex problem solving is a type of executive function. Furthermore, these skills bridge gaps in higher education. There are two competing views of college, the utopian view and the utilitarian view (Appiah, 2015). Colleges subscribing to the utopian view seek to develop thoughtful, informed citizens who contribute to society. Colleges subscribing to the utilitarian view seek to equip students with professional skills. Neither of these competing paradigms adequately emphasizes complex problem solving. The utopian view is too abstract and disconnected. And the utilitarian view is too technical and specific. Complex problem solving bridges these competing views by making the utopian view more relevant to the real world and broadening technical education’s applicability. In other words, it actually prepares students to excel in the real world.
For professionally ambitious college graduates, time is of the essence. Complex problem solving skills have a major impact on your professional trajectory. Every day that passes without confronting this reality represents a missed opportunity. And you’re not living your best possible life. However, in adults, neuroplasticity demonstrates that it is never too late to close this gap (Dweck, 2006). For young professionals, there’s no time to lose. For mid-career professionals, it’s never too late to start.
Opportunities to learn complex problem solving skills through structured programs are shockingly limited. Only four top-tier MBA programs predominantly teach the case method. Harvard Business School is the most famous example. Other leading MBA programs based on the case method include the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, INSEAD in France, and IESE in Spain. The curricula and teaching methods at these programs are designed to take students beyond learning facts, theories, and frameworks (“knowing”) to practice problem solving skills (“doing”) while developing the values, attitudes, and behaviors essential for forming their professional identities and worldviews (“being”) (Banham et al., 2019). Graduates from these programs constitute a tiny proportion of the labor force. As mentioned previously, engineering education is another setting that emphasizes problem solving. Skills to solve complex problems are important in engineering education curricula (Phang et al., 2018). However, engineering is inherently technical. And many engineers attend MBA programs to transition into business-focused leadership roles. This indicates that the metacognitive approach of an engineer is valuable but not always sufficient. Finally, strategy consulting is a setting where employers strive to develop these skills in their young consultants. A consistent flow of high-performing students from undergraduate and graduate programs join their ranks every year. They pride themselves on their selectivity. There are a couple of issues with this. First, strategy consulting is a small industry, which means people with this skill set are absent in the vast majority of problem solving situations. Second, consulting projects conclude with a recommendation. Consultants do not execute their ideas. And plans seldom work in practice as they do on paper. In short, we need more complex problem solvers.
However, there’s good news. To develop complex problem solving skills, you don’t need to win acceptance to a highly selective MBA program, slog through an engineering degree, or outcompete droves of applicants to land a job at a leading strategy consulting firm. In the BlueRipple Edge program, members develop complex problem solving skills, apply them to real-world situations, and accelerate their growth with continual feedback. It’s a game-changer.
Generally speaking, professional settings are not conducive to developing robust complex problem solving skills. Each context presents advantages and disadvantages for skill development. College and graduate school programs often provide the opportunity to practice lower-order problem solving skills. However, they are not designed to teach complex problem solving skills. Think back to the four types of problems that we defined earlier — simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Academic content largely focuses on simple and complicated problem solving. In many areas — including math, economics, and finance — instructors design tests and assignments to have a single right answer. In many science classes, there might be multiple acceptable answers to a problem. But they usually lack the “unknown unknowns” element of complex problem solving. The absence of complexity in academic contexts prevents students from learning higher-order problem solving skills. Furthermore, experts (teachers) in a particular field are often so fluent in solving problems from that field that they can find it difficult to articulate the problem solving principles and strategies they use to novices (students) in their field because these principles and strategies are second nature to the expert (Vanderbilt, 2020). These shortcomings offer insight into why some high-performing students spin their wheels in the real world.
The professional context provides real-world complex problem solving opportunities but lacks an educational mechanism. As discussed, complex problems are ubiquitous in professional environments. And employers and investors reward complex problem solvers with opportunities and money. However, complex problem solving is a topic that seldom explicitly arises. Employers implicitly recognize its importance. But they rarely directly address it. Employers seldom train employees to solve complex problems. Up until now, it’s been up to you to recognize its importance and develop a professional edge based on it.
Complex problem solving skills apply outside of professional settings. Two major categories tend to weigh heavily on the minds of young professionals. The first is life decisions. Examples of these types of problems include:
—What do you want to do with your life?
—How will you establish financial independence doing what interests you?
—How will you excel in your current job?
—How will you excel in a purpose-driven career?
—How will you make an impact in the world?
There is a specific technique to apply the problem solving skills described in this guide to solve these problems. And it requires framing a problem in terms that make some people feel uncomfortable: money. First, define a problem in terms of ROIC. In other words, assume you would be receiving a paycheck. Every month, how much money would enter your bank account after taxes, rent/mortgage, food, and other basic living expenses? If this number is negative, you’re either going into debt, or your parents are subsidizing you. And neither of these are desirable solutions. For the invested capital component, how much would you need to invest in education or training to generate this target return? With this, you have a grasp of the financial component of your problem.
With the financial component in place, you must sharpen your problem definition based on your goals and interests. Very few people are completely indifferent to how they earn money. Those who are completely indifferent tend to be sociopaths. To align your problem definition with your goals and interests, add constraints. For example, how would one generate a return after living expenses of $2000 per month without any additional educational investment and:
—Work as a digital designer for a marketing agency in New York City
—Live alone in Brooklyn
—Spend 10 hours per month finding homes for rescue dogs?
Letters (a), (b), and (c) are constraints. By combining ROIC with your constraints, you are ideally prepared to solve this problem.
The second major category — social and wicked problems — appeals to an individual’s search for purpose in life. You want to make a positive impact in the world. Social problems focus on transforming the world from how it is to how you believe it should be. They are highly complex. That makes them perfect for applying complex problem solving skills. Some of these social problems might even be “wicked.” “Wicked problems” is the name given to describe a class of problems that seem to defy problem definition and solution because they are impossibly linked to complex systems (Rittel et al., 1973). In both cases, your ability to make an impact will require that you leverage a larger system. This might include a nonprofit organization, business, government agency, or political office. Once you identify (or create) a system whose primary output aligns with your personal purpose, apply your complex problem solving skills to influence the organization. For example, if you’re passionate about reducing recidivism rates among minority youths in New York City, you might identify nonprofits and government programs that help incarcerated juveniles learn 21st-century technical skills like coding. If you decide to volunteer for the organization, deploy your problem solving skills to maximize its impact. Or, if you favor a capitalistic approach, you might apply your skills to frugal innovation. Frugal innovation is creative problem solving when resources are extremely limited (Radjou, 2014). In other words, how do you solve complex problems with extreme constraints? As you can see, your skillset will impact all aspects of your life.
Problem solving is fundamentally important to everything. And its importance is rooted in science. Consider the second law of thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of the universe. It states that the universe — and all of the different systems within it — moves from a state of order to disorder (Glenn, 2015). This means that the world is only growing more complex and disordered. And this will eventually lead to its collapse. Ask any scientist. There is no escaping the second law of thermodynamics. Complex problem solving, however, is about imposing order on systems. It is a negative feedback loop that increases the system’s stability (Cao et al., 2009). In other words, complex problem solving slows down how quickly a system becomes disordered, postponing its collapse. On a planet growing more complex and disordered — including climate change, rising sea levels, environmental pollution, and accelerated biodiversity loss — we need more complex problem solvers. Not only will these skills confer a competitive edge in your professional life. They are critical to ensuring our collective future on a biodiverse planet.
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