IMAGINE a pen and paper maze, or labyrinth and maze made of tall thick hedges that one sees in movies. Is it easier to start from the outside and go down all sorts of dead end paths to get to the centre, or start from the centre and work your way out ?
Often in the confusion and maze of business problem solving, managers wander around in a swamp of facts and figures often leading no where.
Thankfully, there is a smarter approach, based on structure and logic. Business problem solving tends to be messy like slogging through mud.
The problem is usually not that there is not enough data and information, usually there is too much. With Google and other search engines you can find out anything about anything. But often that does not help.
Japanese managers spend time initially not so much with a stress on coming up with the right answer, but more on making sure they are asking the right question.
After all what’s the value of having the correct solution to the wrong question.
Effective business problem solving is a blend of structured logical hard analysis, combined with intuition and dash of creative thinking added to the mix. Just as you would not build a house without an agreed upon blueprint of the structure, it’s foolishness to approach business problem solving with a willy nilly impressionistic approach to the facts and figures.
What is required is a more rigorous structured logical thinking. A skill rarely taught in business schools.
To start, often the problem senior management faces them can be vague, for instance: How do we make money in our industry, with ever increasing competition and steadily decreasing profit margin’s.
Phrasing the problem that way makes for an almost impossible night marish task. But the trick is to break down the individual parts of the problem and indemnify the key drivers.
Then put them down on paper on a logic tree, simply a hierarchical listing of all the elements of the business problem.
Could be, for instance, that issues are broken down on the basis of the geography of the firm, then by revenue and expenditure, and by what creates that income and costs, each drilling down in level of detail.
Let’s say that the managers have framed out what they see the business problem as. As opposed to wandering around the facts and figures, hoping that the answer will pop out of them, a far better approach is state an initial hypotheses.
Initial hypothesis being the best intelligent guess as to what the managers think the answer to the problem likely is.
Having an initial hypothesis there to prove, or disprove, focuses everyone’s thinking and leads the team in the right direction from the start, helping you know when you are in a blind alley.
Many managers when faced with a problem will take a mass of facts and data and wade through it fishing for answers. Essentially this is deductive thinking, working from this mass of general facts to a (hopefully) particular answer.
As in if A then B, then C and so on all the way to Z. But the smart management problem solving team will start at Z, stating it as initial hypothesis and work backwards in a structured logical approach to see if the facts and figure fit the hypotheses, the solution proposed.
It’s far easier to start from the centre, the end point of the journey and work your way backwards.
The reason being that in knowing where the solution is you can almost automatically avoid going down paths that lead to dead ends.
David J. Abbott is a management consultant