Five years ago, Ken Watanabe, a Harvard MBA who worked at one of the world’s leading consulting firms, walked away from a lucrative career to write a children’s book. He was alarmed that school-age kids in his native Japan were good at memorizing large amounts of information but not very effective at applying it to real-life situations. He wanted to teach them in a fun way to broaden and organize their approach to problem solving and become more proactive in shaping the world.
But something unexpected happened. Watanabe’s 110-page book became a phenomenon among adults in Japan... and the country’s best-selling business book of the year. Since then, it’s been published in a half-dozen countries around the world, including, most recently, the US.
Bottom Line/Personal spoke to Ken Watanabe about his secrets to problem solving...
Good problem solving isn’t an innate talent. It comes from a way of thinking using a set of techniques that you can practice and improve upon. Most people rely too much on their instincts when they try to solve a problem, especially when they feel flustered or overwhelmed. They tend to grasp at the first or second solution that pops into their heads, even if it doesn’t seem completely adequate.
I developed a simple, structured approach that works for addressing almost any kind of problem, big or small. In fact, I’ve used the same approach helping my Fortune 500 company clients as I do trying to fix the pepper shaker in my kitchen.
Step 1. Identify your problem and the root difficulties causing it. People tend to think about their situations in such vague, universal terms that they get overwhelmed.
Example: You feel stressed and unhappy because you never have enough money each month. Stress and unhappiness are symptoms, not underlying problems that you can take action to remedy. You have to analyze more deeply. Is the actual problem that you’re not earning enough money? Or is it that you’re spending too much each month? To identify problems, I find it helpful to think of myself as a doctor trying to cure a patient. I list potential causes for a problem, arrive at a hypothesis for the most likely cause and focus on addressing that cause.
Step 2. Come up with multiple solutions. List as many as you can, no matter how improbable. This often leads you to creative and unexpected solutions. Even if you think a particular solution may be the right one, get into the habit of challenging this conclusion. Ask yourself, What are the shortcomings of this solution? Is there a better way?
Step 3. Prioritize your actions and implement a plan. After you select a solution, you need to follow through on it and be prepared to modify it—or replace it—until the problem is resolved.
I find that jotting down my thoughts and creating graphic representations of them are essential to breaking down problems into manageable parts and making sure that I explore every possible avenue...
The Logic Tree. This is useful for clarifying your problem and its root causes.
How it works: Start with your problem in a box on the left side of a piece of paper. Ask "why?" you have that problem. For each answer, draw an arrow to the right, and put it in a box. Now ask "why?" for each of the answers in the boxes. Keep repeating the process until you have identified all of the possible root causes of the problem.
The Logic Tree also can help you brainstorm a variety of solutions to a problem after you’ve identified the root cause.
Example: Say that you have determined that the root cause of your money problems is that you don’t track your spending well enough.
Pros and cons box. This is useful for evaluating which competing solutions are the best ones. The box allows you to line up and compare the benefits and drawbacks of possible solutions at a glance.
How it works: Draw three columns. Label the first "Possible Solutions," the second "Pros" and the third "Cons." List each solution, and fill in its corresponding pros and cons. You can further refine the process by marking each pro and con entry using a star system. Three stars is very attractive or very unattractive depending on whether it’s in your pro or con list, two stars is moderately attractive/unattractive, one star is marginally attractive/unattractive.
Count the stars. If they are in the pro column, more stars are good. If they are in the con column, more stars are bad.
I had an expensive new pepper shaker that I had to shake and shake over my food just to get enough pepper out. It was a small problem, but one that annoyed me almost every day. I thought about throwing it out and buying a new pepper shaker, but that seemed like a waste. I decided to find out whether thinking through the problem in a structured way would allow me to find a more satisfying solution. A pepper shaker, of course, is trivial in the scheme of things, but the process used to solve the pepper shaker problem can solve any problem.
In this case, identifying the problem was easy—I wasn’t getting enough pepper from my pepper shaker.
Possible root causes...
I need too much pepper on my food. I rejected this because I really like pepper on my food and didn’t want to change my preferences. My tastes were not the issue.
I wasn’t shaking the shaker long enough or hard enough. I dismissed this cause, too, because I felt that giving one or two vigorous shakes should be sufficient.
The small openings on the top of the pepper shaker were too small. Yes, this seemed like the most reasonable cause. I decided to pursue this line of thought and develop solutions.
Buy a new pepper shaker with larger openings. I had already rejected the idea of buying a new one.
Increase the amount of pepper that was coming out of the shaker. Yes, this seemed promising, but how to do it?
I had to continue generating more refined solutions.
Possible refined solutions...
Increase the number of holes in the shaker by poking more of them. I didn’t want to do this, because it would ruin the look of my nice pepper shaker.
Make each existing hole bigger. No, again for the same reason.
Use more finely ground pepper. Yes, that seemed like the smartest, most practical idea.
I then put the solution into action. I called the store to check whether it carried finely ground pepper—it did. I stopped by the store on the way home from work.
Source: Ken Watanabe, author of the best-selling Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People (Portfolio). He is founder and CEO of Delta Studio, an education, entertainment and media company in Tokyo, where he is developing an educational TV show and a "brain game" for Nintendo. Formerly, he was a consultant at McKinsey & Co. ProblemSolvingToolBox.com