“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

– Albert Einstein

The problem solving skills toolkit is the foundation of the success of every top-tier strategy consulting firm. While they hire the best and brightest, they all have extensive training regiments on core problem solving, which can be used in just about every project on just about every type of problem businesses face. Below represents the McKinsey problem solving toolkit which I learned from my 5+ years as a McKinsey consultant.

Problem solving skills cover the ability to break down problems, intimately understand them, and develop highly effective and efficient solutions to them. Sounds simple enough, yet the fundamentals necessitate a high degree of conceptual, quantitative, and analytical thinking. In this section, I’ll focus on the fundamental concepts and tools that are important to the conceptual aspect of problem solving, and then in the next section, I’ll go over the quantitative and analytical tools.

Much of this content may seem a bit esoteric. I like to compare it to learning philosophy, where much of the material may be esoteric, but the concepts and tools are incredibly powerful and essential to learning the fundamentals of logic. Many “first principle” tools and concepts are critical to the strong logic necessary for problem solving. So, while you may think, “Ah this doesn’t seem important” or “That is so simple,” I urge you to be patient with the content and reflect on your problem solving skills and how these tools and concepts can help your strategic thinking and decision making.

In this section, I’ll cover the top problem solving skills, tools and concepts, including:

1. Prioritization
Prioritization is one of the core foundational skills in strategy, leadership, and life. It seems like such a simple concept, but the challenge is always figuring out the dimensions you are prioritizing against and then understanding the relative value of options against those dimensions.

2. Problem Statement
The first step to all good problem solving is defining the problem clearly and elegantly. The better the problem statement, the better the problem solving.

3. Hypotheses
There is a reason why McKinsey problem solving is all about creating hypotheses and then proving or disproving those hypotheses. Learning to be hypothesis-driven is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career.

4. Disaggregation
If you want to be a master problem solver, master disaggregating problems into their discrete, mutually exclusive, and collectively exhaustive components. The best problem solvers can disaggregate and frame problems quickly and elegantly.

5. Hypothesis Trees
McKinsey teams spend a considerable amount of time as a team on building out hypothesis trees, which helps organize and prioritize the hypotheses they will spend most of the project proving or disproving.

6. Deductive and Inductive Logic
Understanding when and how to use deductive versus inductive logic will elevate your problem solving. Most people use induction way too much in problem solving, and when they build up their deductive logic skill set, they dramatically improve their problem solving.

7. The Power of Questions
We all can and should ask many more questions than we do. The right questions can cut through problems like a sharp knife through butter. Learn to ask the right questions at the right time to elevate your problem-solving skills.

8. Active Listening
We all can and should become better listeners. Truly focusing on processing what someone is saying and building on their insights is how strong problem-solving progresses to elegant solutions.

9. Root Cause Analysis
We often develop and execute sub-optimal solutions because we solve the symptoms of a problem rather than the root. Getting to the root cause of a problem usually takes that extra effort. Improving your root cause analysis will pay off in the many years of problem-solving ahead of you.

10. Brainstorming
Collaborating with strong minds and perspectives is how you push ideas to improve. Strong brainstorming is both an art and a science. Learn how to facilitate the conversational momentum needed for solid problem solving and ideation.

11. Voice of the Customer
There is no more powerful voice than the internal or external customer. They will often tell you the answer to seemingly complex problems. You just need to ask the right questions of them.

Just like all of the sections on this site, you can pick and choose a topic, or if you want a nice overview of a section read the topics in order.

 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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