One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.
I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.
The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.
Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.
So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.
First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.
1. Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.
2. Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.
3. Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.
4. Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.
5. Then of course, you have to actually do the research.
6. Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.
· A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.
· Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.
· Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.
Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.
Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.