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Becoming better strategic thinkers

A manager at a hotel receives an alarming number of complaints from her guests that they have to wait too long for elevators. So she requests quotes for installing an additional elevator. Turned down by the price tag of that solution, the manager seeks an alternative and decides to give her guests something to do while they wait for the elevator, by installing mirrors or televisions or providing magazines. The price tag of that solution is a lot lower and, upon implementing it, the complaints stop.

So what? Well, sometimes, the obvious solution to a problem isn’t the best, and there is value in searching for alternatives. Also, this search for alternatives might require us to think outside of our disciplines: slow elevators can be fixed with an engineering solution. It can also be fixed with behavioral solution.

People born between 1957 and 1964 averaged 12 jobs during their career, and there are no signs that this trend is going to slow down. How do we prepare—both ourselves and the next generation—for this need for constantly reinventing ourselves and adapting to ever-fast change?

Here’s an answer: develop a skill set that enables us to make sense of new and complex situations. When confronted to a complex problem, we should be comfortable identifying what the actual problem is, understanding why we are facing it, identifying potential solutions, and implementing whichever solution we think is best. We need to complement our specialist skills with generalists ones and actively work on becoming better strategic thinkers.

Complementing specialist skills to become “T-shaped”

In our personal and professional lives, we all solve problems daily. Training our students to be skilled problem solvers is also an essential part of what we do as educators. And this might start by recognizing that, beyond their apparent differences, many of the complex problems we face share some common denominators.

Some people, usually specialists in their discipline, are quick to minimize the importance of common denominators and that, therefore, we shouldn’t waste our time developing an approach that is so generic that it doesn’t really bring any value.

120726-F-QT695-010 by U.S. Air Force/Percy G. Jones. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Arctic Warrior Flickr.

Of course, there are obvious differences between, for example, medicine and the military, and those call for specialized training. But there are also similarities. Indeed, problem solving in medicine can be the same as in the military. Such an instance is Duncker’s radiation problem. Imagine having to treat a tumor in the stomach of a patient. Any ray of sufficient intensity would destroy both the tumor and the neighboring healthy tissue. An elegant solution is to simultaneously project rays of low intensity from various points around the patient that all converge at the tumor to amount to a ray of sufficient intensity. When confronted with this problem, subjects who first read a military analogy (attacking a fortress in a countryside protected by minefields that let through small groups but not an entire army) are significantly better at finding this solution, thereby supporting the idea that keeping an eye on how people solve problems in other disciplines is valuable.

Generalizing, there is widespread agreement that an ideal problem solver is “T-shaped,” that is, both a specialist in the relevant discipline(s) and a generalist.

Formal training programs usually focus on the discipline-specific side, the vertical bar of the “T,” but many fall short on the generalist front, and that’s problematical. For instance, a report by the National Academies notes that the problems that students solve in class differ considerably from the ones in the “real world” because the latter are ill-defined and knowledge-intensive. This leads to some students’ inability to translate what they learn on campus to practical situations.

Another drawback of focusing solely on the vertical bar of the T is that it limits innovation as we fall prey to the “not invented here” syndrome. Yet, there is considerable value in “stealing” ideas from other disciplines. Checklists, for instance, first appeared in airplane cockpits. Despite some initial resistance, their adoption in operating rooms has led to significant reductions in postsurgical complications. In this case and in many similar ones, an ability to see value in a field different than one’s own—the horizontal bar of the T—was needed and paid off.

One way to transform this insight into action is to think of strategic thinking as a four-step process.

First, identify the problem that you should solve (the “what”). Facing a new, unfamiliar situation, you should first understand what the real problem is, and what it isn’t. This is a deceptively difficult task: We often think we have a good idea of what we need to do and quickly begin to look for solutions only to realize later on that we are solving the wrong problem, perhaps a peripheral one or just a symptom of the main problem.

Second, identify why you are having this problem (the “why”). This starts with identifying a diagnostic key question, formulated with a why root, that encompasses all the other relevant diagnostic questions. There are various types of questions that might apply: why do I face my problem in the first place?, why do I want to solve it?, or why haven’t I solved it yet? can all be insightful. Which one you should elect depends on the specificities of your situation; the point is to elect one and use it to acquire additional insight into your problem.

Next, identify all the possible answers to that why question and then focus on the important one(s). To do that, it may be helpful to build a diagnosis issue map: a graphical representation of the problem that breaks it down into its various dimensions and lays out all the possible causes exactly once. Then, associate formal hypotheses with specific parts of the map, test these hypotheses, and capture your conclusions.

Third, identify alternative ways to solve the problem (the “how”). Knowing what the problem is and why you have it, you can move on to what people commonly think of as problem solving: actively searching for a solution. But instead of implementing the first solution that comes to mind, you should first consider various options, compare them, and only then decide which one(s) to implement.

You can start this by formulating a solution key question, built with a how root, and framing it. Next, identify all the possible solutions for that question and organize them in a solution issue map, develop formal hypotheses, and test them. This is a time where analogical thinking and looking at how people in other disciplines have solved similar problems can be particularly rewarding.

This will take you to the decision-making stage: selecting the best solution(s) out of all the possible ones.

Fourth, implement the solution (the “do”). The final step is to implement the solution(s) that you selected, which usually starts by convincing key stakeholders that your conclusions are correct before monitoring the effectiveness of your solution(s) and taking corrective steps as needed.

In summary, our strategic-thinking process comes down to four words: what, why, how, do. And yes, I concede that developing these skills requires an investment. But faced with increased complexity, the question is less and less whether we and our students can afford to think strategically but whether we can afford not to.

Featured image credit: ‘Puzzle’ by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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