‘Awesome’ Problem Solving Strategies

‘Awesome’ Problem Solving Strategies

There has been a lot of discussion lately around different thinking strategies we can employ when preparing our communication.

This topic has led to a slew of emails with people in the Clarity First community who have shared their experiences with me.

Some have discussed their experience with leaders who have excelled at getting the right balance between top-down thinking and bottom-up reality.

One person said to me they loved working with two well known CEOs who were able to think strategically while also being savvy enough to get on the shop floor to see if their ideas would really work from the bottom up.

They also shared experiences where they worked for someone else who did not have that balance right. Their ideas sounded terrific in theory, but were difficult to implement because they would not ‘roll their sleeves up' to understand what was needed to make them operational.

Getting this top-down, bottom-up balance right is part of the art of our work.

So, today I am taking this conversation further by interviewing Pete Mockaitis from Awesome at Your Job.

Pete has an impressive record, having recorded almost 600 podcasts, which have been downloaded more than 10 million podcast times over the past few years.

In this interview Pete shares thinking strategies that may help you in your problem solving work, in particular:

  1. Two essential questions to ask if you want to be sure an idea is worth exploring
  2. Practical examples of how this has played out in his own work, both when he was a consultant at Bain & Co, and in his own business
  3. Ways to identify when to use, and when NOT to use hypothesis-based problem solving strategies

Click here to register for our free Clarity First Base Program where you can listen to the full interview.

 

 

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

How to use your critical thinking abilities to turbo charge your communication skills

How to use your critical thinking abilities to turbo charge your communication skills

When I first joined McKinsey as a communication specialist, I was astounded at how quickly consultants came up with rigorous ways to think about new issues.

Over time I came to see how they did it and wanted to share one related strategy that will help you with your communication.

Thinking top down boosts your impact enormously while also providing a useful framework for doing justice to your analysis when communicating.

Here are three ideas to help you put that into practice:

  1. Understand what top-down thinking is about
  2. Get into the helicopter first
  3. Make like a porpoise

I'll run them through in more detail one by one.

 

Understand what top-down thinking is about

Top-down thinking is about identifying the things that matter most before either deciding what problem to solve or building the supporting case for your point. 

In practice, it’s a bit like when you go to an experienced tailor: they don’t tally up each measurement and then look at a chart to know that you are a size 42 regular.

They take a quick look at you and have a hunch that you look like a 42 regular and then test that hypothesis by taking out their measuring tape to check that they are right.

If their measurements disprove their hunch, they adjust their thinking to conclude that perhaps you are a size 40 disguised in baggy clothing.

In problem solving, this means thinking through the roadmap before digging into any particular aspect of the analysis. 

Consultants rely on previously used frameworks to give them ideas for identifying what that roadmap looks like. You can also do this by adopting the standard framework used in your industry or discipline and complement that by grabbing hold of the HBR guide to Key Management Models.

In communication, this works largely the same way. With experience, we can identify the communication pattern and then test it using a set of principles to check that our message and supporting points do their job. We outline both the patterns and a useful test in our short and practical book, The So What Strategy.

Top-down and bottom-up strategies complement each other but starting with the top magnifies our impact and saves us significant amounts of time.

So, let’s look at how you do that.

 

Get into the helicopter first

As with many things, the idea of thinking top down isn’t that hard.

Doing it, however, is not as straightforward unless you have a process to follow.

Here is how I think about it when preparing a piece of communication.

When thinking through my strategy before I draft anything, I focus on absolutely nailing two things: my purpose and my
audience.

This is information that doesn’t appear inside my communication, but rather shapes it.

In going through this process, I ask myself many things to confirm each element. When thinking about my audience though, there is one critical question that I always ask: What would they need to know to agree with me, or do what I need them to do?

I then brainstorm and prioritise my thoughts so that I end up with a high-level list of no more than five points that I must focus on.

I then work top down as much as possible to craft my communication, and work bottom up to test that the ideas are in the right place.

In the Clarity First Program we teach you exactly how to do this.

This brings me to my next point.

 

Make like a porpoise

Have you seen the way a porpoise bobs up and down as it swims?

This is a useful image for me when I think about how I make sure I take full advantage of both top down and bottom up
thinking when I prepare my communication.

As discussed above, I first sort out my top-level messaging.

Having now been helping people prepare their communication for a couple of decades, I am a bit like the tailor I mentioned earlier. I default to key storyline patterns to fast track this process wherever possible.

I then iterate up and down through the hierarchy of my thinking until I am confident that all if the ideas I need to communicate have a logical place in my storyline.

This played out real time in today’s coaching session.

I worked with a team to prepare a short but contentious email outlining some changes to their priorities that partner organisations needed to know about.

We started thinking through our strategy, mapped out our high-level messaging and then as we worked our way toward the end, asked ourselves whether each point was in the right place.

To do that, we assessed the links between our ideas and the inferences we were drawing at each stage.

We checked that the introduction would draw the audience into our main point quickly, that the ideas that supported that main point are organised to be MECE (mutually exclusive and cover everything).

We also double checked that the words on the page achieved our initial purpose and addressed the concerns of the most important audience members.

The team will then communicate the message top down.

They will begin with a short introduction and follow with the main idea and then the right depth of carefully mapped ideas to support that idea.

They will enable their audience to get the big picture quickly and follow the argument step by step.

Click here to learn how to do this for yourself.

 

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

The Minto Pyramid Principle is a widely lauded approach for preparing clearer business reports.

Developed by a McKinsey & Company team led by Barbara Minto in the 1960s, ‘pyramid’ helps people use logic and structure to organise their ideas into a logical and coherent reader-focused argument.

At Clarity First we love this approach.

It enables us to think top down, draw out insights quickly and communicate complex ideas clearly.

However, despite much evidence from our own work and its popularity across consulting and business strategy teams in particular, very little formal research has been undertaken into its actual effectiveness.

Perhaps it was enough to say “It’s McKinsey: It’s good”.

However, Dr Louise Cornelis (another ex-McKinsey communication specialist) recently changed this when working with a series of Masters’ students at Groningen University in Holland.

She undertook a qualitative study to understand whether preparing a business report using a ‘top-down, reader-focused pyramid structure’ was actually helpful to the reader.

Dr Cornelis’ findings demonstrate some irony.

Writers and readers don’t always agree on what is ‘reader-focused’ unless the writer first educates the reader about what ‘reader-focused’ actually means.

Here is why that seems to be true.

#1 – Audiences are hard wired into their old habits

It seems that our readers are hard-wired into what they expect and can be confused by a new way of doing things unless it is explained to them.

In the case of business reports, many people are accustomed to receiving reports written with titles such as ‘Executive Summary’, ‘Background’, ‘Issues’ and a ‘Conclusion’ at the end and are quite lost when these are absent.

They can be confused by Pyramid reports that ignore these section titles, preferring to instead have customized titles that reflect the content of the report: a bit like newspaper headlines.

#2 – Consultants and others using the approach often forget to explain how their approach works

When, however, the approach is explained they not only like the Pyramid Principle approach much better, but can read the documents significantly more quickly.

Readers who were provided with a short description of the structure before reading the documents were able to grasp the main message from a document almost five times faster than those with no preparatory explanation.

Dr Cornelis found that people very much appreciated the Pyramid Principle report-writing approach but only when they understood what it was trying to do.

So the next time have a good idea: remember to ensure your significant others understand the benefit, even when the idea is specifically for the them.

 

 

Keywords: design your strategy, develop your storyline, research

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Louise Cornelis is a communication consultant based in Rotterdam. Louise specialises in helping her clients use structure and logic to communicate clearly, having learned her craft at McKinsey & Company and honed it by working with a wide range of clients since.

She particularly enjoys grappling with complex challenges that relate to helping others not only communicate clearly, but want to do so. The Clarity First team very much enjoys thinking about these challenges in collaboration with Louise.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.