Building problem solving muscle

Over years of managing #complex #programs, which I simply consider as a proxy for problem solving, I have observed an interesting pattern — the basic functional skills required for project, or program management are more or less the same, but the ability to apply it in varying situations and the finesse with it one does is what sets one apart from the rest. It is not so much that there are different toolboxes, but rather the same toolbox — the difference being some of us know our tools better, and have a much better ability to decide what tool to apply in a given situation. Needless to say, the results are dramatically different.

However, what clearly sets masters apart from the apprentices is how they approach the problems, the way make sense of the situation, the sharpness with which they are able to establish (or rather cull out) causal relationships, and come up with set of ideas that eventually lead them to a far superior solution. Execution is clearly a yet another muscle, but as a #strategist, there are distinct levels of proficiency that demonstrate the range of capabilities. You would not hire a novice for a complex program, right! So, how does one really decide what might be the capability muscle?

I have observed following continuum of how various project managers deal with the spectrum of problems, starting with the easiest ones as below:

1. Clear start line, clear finish line: Perhaps the training ground, or the textbook implementation of knowledge required to solve a problem. This being table stakes, I would expect 70–75% of competent professionals to be able to crack it. Someone who can’t even ace this one doesn’t definitely deserve to be on your team at all! In a job long back, there was a manager who was given a very small — literally a solved problem — kind of project. Guess what…he managed to screw it up!

Think of the LEGO instruction booklet — you know what all you need, and you know how to follow a step-by-step process to get to the desired output. Or using a GPS when the origin and the destination have been fed in — you need to only know how to drive in order to reach the destination. Or a programmer who had been given clear instructions on what is to be implemented. All these would come under this category.

One word of caution: most certification hunters can barely just about operate in such zone, though the certification by itself is obviously no guarantee. Just that when people try to impose constraints on real-life because the book says so, you know who you are dealing with :). It is also rather easy to spot them on LinkedIn — they have a long appendage of alphabet soup meant to be a proxy to their supposed competencies. In general, nothing bad about it…in fact, this is the bare minimum without which we would not even be able to get started!

2. Unclear start line, clear finish line: Sometimes it is clear what we want to be at a given point in future, but we are not quite clear where are we, or how to get started. But once we somehow figure it out, things move relatively faster because the “to be” state is clear, and hence charting the path from “as is” is rather straightforward. I would expect ~10–15% of advanced professionals to manage the situation. In the course of mentoring entrepreneurs, I mostly come across this variety — once you can “challenge” them up just enough so they are able to find their bearings and then they are on their own. In corporates, you know them as the most sought-after “crisis managers” — they often are trusted with a messy situation and asked to “fix” it.

For example, think of yourself in an unfamiliar car — if you know driving, it might take a bit of time and effort, but you eventually get how to drive the new car. Or, think of a painter who has been asked to make a copy of Mona Lisa — she knows the finish line, but might not have some standard algorithm to think of the start line — someone might start by sketching the outline, some others might directly start with the colors, and so on.

These people know the subject well, but what they lack is the ability to apply them in a given situation. However, once they have a coach, they can execute well. While these might not be original thinkers, these are very good followers and most certainly very disciplined troubleshooters, and you should definitely hire them so long as the work given them such “bounded freedom”, i.e. they are free to pursue their methods so long as they can take the ship to the shore. Kennedy’s moon speech is a great example here — the end goal was clear, but what was not clear was how to get started. Eventually they overcame all challenges, so this clearly requires a high degree of ability to deal with start-line ambiguity.

3. Clear start line, unclear finish line: Here it starts getting trickier. In some sense, this is like driving into desert to find water — not too many people are comfortable dealing with such level of uncertainty and/or dynamics! I expect not more than 8–10% of the expert level folks to have such proficiency, ability to deal with uncertainty, confidence to make bold bets and organizational gravitas to pull it off! Think of hiring a bunch of crack programmers and architects and asking them to build the first iPod or the first Facebook — they clearly know what they know but they might back being a visionary and being a bold dreamer to envisage something in the future. They might give you the next blockbuster drug, or the next billion dollar product…just that they need a little bit of terra firma to get started.

Think of a masterchef who has a very very special guest coming up, and he has been asked to think of something out of the world! There is no real finish line, for the chef must think of something unique. Or take a fashion designer — by definition, she must design something “unfashionable” in order to be fashionable — for if it is already known and familiar, it is not fashionable and unique anymore. It is the same cloths, but the end goal is not clear. Similarly, if you commissioned a storywriter or a songwriter, they have access to the same starting point — the letters of alphabet, the grammar syntax rules, and so on. But depending on how they come up with words (And sentences, and paragraphs and eventually the final story, prose or the lyrics) is a very high state of ability to deal with the fuzzy finish line.

They have the right competencies, and the right experience but probably what they lack is the workplace equivalent of “street smartness” to carry out a task with elan! These are your future rockstars — nurture them. Mind you — they are in top part of the pyramid, for not everyone can build plans when the end state is not in sight. It is like John Chambers said — we have to go forty steps, but at point, we can only see the next five steps. So, we walk five steps, and then again look at the next five steps. However, they do need some clarity on what do they start with.

4. Unclear start line, unclear finish line: They are not just top guns, they are literally mavericks! Probably 5% or less might make the cut. You are not dealing with the process aspects here, but taking the pole position. They are not waiting for the perfect world, nor any instructions or permissions to get started. For them, the perfect launchpad is here and now, and their instruction book has just one page with just three letters written in it — DIY!

Think of Mr. Nek Chand, creator of the world-famous Rock Garden of Chandigarh — there was no template or guidelines to get started with, not a masterplan to execute to! In some sense, as a two-year old, we all were like that! — we took whatever came to us, and built whatever we felt like making — the lack of judgment in attaching a “value” to it made the whole process to joyful. Sadly, we lost the ability to dream free as we continued to grow up, and “learnt” to adapt to the feedback from others on what was good and what was not!

They are known to break a lot of china, and might seem chaotic or even autocratic, but they are clearly not competing in a popularity contest! They might even display a thrill-seeking behavior, but in reality, they thrive for such challenges. In my experience, everything else equal (or even below par!), if someone offers you a job that requires you exactly this (which itself might be a subtle recognition that you have arrived in the profession!), simply grab it!


No two problems are alike, even if they look so similar. The ability to assess the ground situation and apply different problem solving methods is extremely critical. As a practitioner, I have looked at different classes of problems in these four categories, and recognize the fundamental differences that underline solving methods in them. Perhaps there are other similar, or better methods that establish the complexity continuum…I would love to learn more about them.

PS: As you can probably imagine, it is rather straightforward to think of #1 and #4 on the extremities. But is #2 more complex than #3, or vice versa? I had a long discussion with my wife, and we disagreed. She felt #3 was more complex and #2, while my position was that having a fuzzy end state was more difficult than having a fuzzy start line. I am sure you might have your own viewpoint. If you disagree with my views, that is perfectly fine, please do share your ideas on the blog post so that other readers could also benefit from a wider debate.

#complexity #organizations #causalinference #problemsolving

Strategy leader. AI researcher