top of page
  • Writer's pictureFred Petito

The Science and Art of Complex Problem Solving


Why is the topic of problem solving important for executives and leadership teams?

First let’s distinguish between complex problem solving and run of the mill problem solving. Some problems are easy or small, and we can quickly sort them out ourselves. But others are complicated, and they take deliberation, collaboration, creativity, and a considerable amount of effort to solve - those are the problems that we’re talking about today.

Another important point is that complex problem-solving abilities is one of the most sought-after skills by employers. For instance, every year the World Economic Forum surveys over 800 global employers, and every year cognitive skills like problem-solving, analytical abilities, and creative thinking top the list as the most important skills for employees

So problem solving, or complex problem-solving skills is a critical capability in today’s job market – here’s an example

What do you mean by the science and art of complex problem solving?

By science I mean the methods and techniques executives can use, and there are many, to solve problems – for example, how they go about

  • Defining a problem

  • Reducing complexity

  • Generating ideas, etc.

By art I mean the imprecise, subjective, and imaginative side of problem solving – a few examples include:

  • The role of divergent and convergent thinking in complex problem solving

  • The mindset executives bring to a problem and how they frame the problem

  • How personality type influences how an executive, or a leadership team, approach a problem

So let's talk about the science side of problem solving - break that down for us, and give us some examples

Well the science side of problem solving is important, but to me not as sexy or as interesting as the art side, so I’m just going to provide an overview. There are many different problem-solving frameworks and tools executives and teams can use and I’m sure your listeners have experience with many of them.

The point of these tools is to help with a few foundational things that you need to get right to successfully solve a complex problem:

  • Defining the problem

  • Putting the problem in its proper context

  • Reducing complexity

  • Defining an ideal end-state

So let's talk about the art side of problem solving - unpack that for us, and give us some examples

Remember by art I mean the imprecise, subjective, and imaginative side of problem solving – a few examples include balancing divergent and convergent thinking – this gets to the heart of creative problem solving.

Balancing Divergent and Convergent Thinking - I like to start with divergent thinking. This calls for generating as much information and as many ideas and solutions as possible. Think quantity over quality.

This kind of thinking is all about gathering information, coming up with ideas, and creativity. It’s a free-flowing form of thinking where no idea is off-limits, and the goal is to generate multiple paths forward.

Then apply convergent thinking – the goal of convergent thinking is to take a structured approach to arrive at a clear solution. Convergent thinking is about synthesizing and organizing ideas to arrive at a well-defined solution.

So you need a combination of both divergent (to allow for expansive thinking, and convergent to allow for focus solutions that apply the best ideas to meet the specific needs and challenges of the situation.

Framing The Problem - The mindset executives bring to a problem and how they frame it is also a critical aspect of solving complex problems. For example, by reframing problems and challenges as open-ended questions with multiple possibilities, it is easier to come up with solutions, as opposed to posing closed-ended questions that tend to elicit short answers, such as confirmations or disagreements

In addition to reframing, bringing a mindset of abundance versus scarcity can be a very effective strategy to tackling complex problems with creativity.

An abundance mindset is when you believe there are plenty of options or alternatives to a problem. A scarcity mindset is when you believe your options are limited.

A scarcity mindset leads to short-term thinking instead of long-term problem-solving, and limits the universe of possibilities.

How Personality Type Influences Problem Solving - This may sound like a red herring but it is such a critical issue when it comes to problem solving, especially when it involves an executive team.

Everyone is different when it comes to problem solving. Some take a logical approach. Others are more driven by their emotions. And yet others are guide more by their instincts and experience.

For a leadership team that struggles with decision-making it could be helpful to use an assessment tool like the Myers Briggs to understand how each team member approaches problem solving.

The Myers-Briggs model of personality is based on four preferences. Understanding the preferences of each team member will provide insight into how the approach problems, risk, and difficult decisions.

Preference One - Where People Direct Their Energy

  • To the outer world of activity and spoken word (Extraversion)

  • To the inner world of thoughts and emotions (Introversion)

Preference Two - How People Process Information

  • In the form of known facts and familiar terms (Sensing)

  • In the form of possibilities or new potential (iNtuition)

Preference Three - How People Prefer to Make Decisions

  • On the basis of logic and objective considerations (Thinking)

  • On the basis of personal values (Feeling)

Preference Three - How People Approach Problems

  • In a structured way, making decisions and knowing where you stand (Judgment)

  • In a flexible way, discovering solutions as you go along (Perception)


bottom of page