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Simplify problem solving and maximize collaboration

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E9 | May 04, 2023




Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at IMD. His work prepares executives to manage the strategic challenges that organizations face in today's dynamic global marketplace by integrating empirical findings from multiple disciplines into concrete tools to improve decision-making and problem solving. At IMD, Arnaud is the director of the Global Management Foundations program, which is a core component of the executive MBA, the Master of Science in sustainable management and technology offered jointly with EPFL and Université de Lausanne, and custom programs.

Getting bogged down in the details of problems and becoming unable to see the wood for the trees is a common human concern. Yet it doesn't have to be. Arnaud Chevallier, who is a master in the field having worked with all kinds of clients from big tech to the United Nations, believes it can all be far simpler than we often think. In the first of this two-part collaboration special, he discusses his insights into solving problems and improving collaboration.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: As a professor of Strategy at IMD School of Business in Switzerland, Arnaud Chevallier's world revolves around solving complex problems through better decision making. And collaboration is key. The author of the book Solvable applies his three-step process to help executives and the high-profile companies and organizations that they run be more productive and profitable. He's applying lessons learned as the ultimate problem solver: an engineer.

Arnaud Chevallier: I trained as an engineer and did a PhD in engineering, loved it. Well, liked it, but didn't quite love it. So, after finishing that, I went into management consulting, as one does, and then realized that they are also solving problems. Engineers solve problems, managers solve problems, who else is solving problems? And I've spent the last 20 years looking at how various disciplines solve their problems.

MH: And what did you learn when you looked at the various disciplines? Was there a consistent theme or does everybody go about solving a problem differently?

AC: Yeah. You have common denominators, for sure. Everyone has a three step, four step, five step process, for sure. But then, different disciplines look at different aspects of the problem, which I find fascinating.
Maybe designers will be looking more at the creative side of things, managers would be more interested in identifying the best option. You really have, I think, different perspectives that are baked into how people are trained.

MH: Now, because your clients are high profile, from big tech to United Nations, is there a common thread among these very different types of clients as well?

AC: Absolutely. I think the common thread is, these days, for sure, it's a pace of change and the uncertainty that results out of this. And so, for sure, when you are confronting a problem, you want to find a solution, but you also want to find maybe enough of maneuvering ability so that you can course correct as new evidence pops up.

MH: I suppose flexibility is a critical component to being effective in being a problem solver.

AC: For sure. Especially when you're dealing with the levels of uncertainty that managers are wrestling these days.

MH: Tell me about the importance of not relying on the solution that somebody else has derived from a different problem. How do you go about separating the signal from the noise?

AC: We see this a lot in management schools where traditionally, we train students to do strategy by applying frameworks. And for the past two, three, four, five generations of managers, those frameworks have been useful. You want to understand your environment, so you apply the EL PASO approach, or maybe the broader Five Forces approach. Great frameworks, beautiful for what they're designed for, but more and more managers these days need to deal with or solve exotic problems. How are you going to change your work from home policy? How do you improve the diversity in the team? There's a number of things for which they have no frameworks, and if you are applying those existing frameworks to these problems, you're force fitting a solution to a problem. You just can't delegate that hard thinking to others. Chances are, you probably have to design your own framework.

MH: Back to that point you made that the pace of change is so dramatic that a lot of what we've learned from past generations doesn't apply to the present and the future, because the future is changing so quickly.

AC: Yeah, for sure. And so, it relates a little bit to system one and system two thinking. I imagine that your auditors have heard this quite a bit. System one thinking is the quick, the intuitive one. Think about how you drive your own car on a familiar road. It's so intuitive, if you've done it enough times, that you even have enough bandwidth to maybe change the radio station or have a conversation with your passenger. And then, you have system two thinking that is a lot more effort driven and hard work.

And Danny Kahneman who's the psychologist who put these two together saying, system one is good for most of the decisions you take every day. Most of the decisions are routine or have low stakes, great to use your intuition, but they're only good if the decision you face fits or has three properties. First one is you need a quick answer. Second, you can survive a mistake. And third, perhaps the most important, is you're likely to get to a good answer, by your intuition. And that works only if the past is a good indicator of the future. These days, what we are finding out is, the future is ever new. Can we rely on our past experiences for a future we have never met before?

MH: With that in mind, your most recent book, "Solvable" breaks down all complex problems into a three-step process, frame, explore, decide. How do each of these step's work?

AC: Let's start from the end, because when we are perplexed by a problem or when we have a tough decision to make, we often go straight into the decision process. Should I do this? Yes, or no? And by the way, a big red flag. If you frame your question as, "Should I do this, yes or no?" You already know you're too constrained. It's not so much, "Should I do this, yes or no?" But "Should I do this or that?" Because if you don't do this, it frees up some cost of opportunity. You can assign those resources to do something else. At the very least, we are thinking, "Should I do this or that or maybe this other thing?"

But essentially, deciding we are answering one question, "How should I solve my problem?" And there's a lot of prerequisites into that statement. First one is, well, we might identify what, "This and that" are. It starts with exploring various avenues versus alternatives, by answering, "How may I solve my problem?" The difference between, "How may I," and "How should I," of course for your listeners who know about design thinking, say, "Hey, they stole that from design thinking." Absolutely. But even then, before the exploring, you've got to understand, "Hang on, what's my challenge? What's my problem in the first place?" You frame to at least put some boundaries on what the problem is, what it isn't. Then you explore various avenues, and also explore what's important to you in the solution, and only then do you decide.

And because new evidence pops up, because it's a journey of discovery, chances are, your problem or your understanding of the problem evolves. It's not just a linear three step process and we are done, but rather it's more of an iterative, where through your exploration, through your decision, you might realize, "Hang on, maybe we need to reframe the problem a little bit because we learned something new here."

MH: So then, what role does collaboration play in essentially following 'FRED', your frame, explore, decide?

AC: It plays multiple roles, but at the essence of it, first, it will give you different perspectives, which can be extremely useful. We all approach a problem through our viewpoint. Maybe the more skilled among us are able to adopt a second viewpoint, but chances are, you want to have more than two perspectives. And so, take a concrete example, you have a proposal, maybe finance will have an opinion, and strategy will have an opinion. How about marketing, engineering, and the rest of it? Bringing different stakeholders who look at the problem from different perspectives will help you get a more holistic viewpoint. And the second attribute of bringing more people is, of course, buy-in support. If we can co-create something, there is something to be said about the fact that people will tend to green light an idea more easily if they think that they are at least partly responsible for it.

MH: My concern though, particularly in large organizations, is that these are companies that over time develop silos. And when you bring in different stakeholders within an organization to help solve a problem, that maybe they're myopic, maybe they're only focused on the impact on their own silo, or maybe there's an element of rivalry between the various silos. How do we break that down?

AC: For sure. And I don't think I have a simple solution for this one, Michael. I think it also goes to the DNA of each organization. And also, if you're lucky, you are interacting with benevolent players. We are all in this together for the greater benefit of the organization. Maybe some of us have been interacting with peers, or perhaps bosses, who are not so benevolent, and who are in the business not to serve the organization, per se, but perhaps more their personal agenda. If you have an ability to step back and see the bigger picture and ask yourself, "What's really the problem? What are we dealing with?" That can be useful.

MH: How do you overcome the challenges of collaborating between large organizations?

AC: So that's an interesting one, in fact, I was helping a major multinational last year do exactly that. Big company, 25,000 employees, over 11 billion of revenues per year, and a leader in their field, really good at solving complex problems, at making difficult decisions. But there were concerns because their decisions took too long. And in fact, looking at this, one of the primary issues was they really have a strong cultural interest in being collegial, in bringing more people in the room, more stakeholders. And so, you might say, "What's the problem with this? You just told us more stakeholders is better." To some extent.

And so, working this out, realizing that collegiality is of course good, except when it's not. Then we looked at, "Can we clarify the issue? Do all decisions need to be collegial?" And of course not. And then, you end up having a separation and identifying what makes a decision in need of a collegial answer versus a decision that can be taken right away, went a long way into helping them fast-forward those decisions that could be taken by just one manager, one stakeholder.

MH: I'm fascinated by your analogy... the concept of every organization's "on a quest". You need to determine what the treasury is and then you need to work as a team to go get that treasure.

AC: Maybe some of your listeners might project themselves in being the audience in front of a PowerPoint that's presented to them by a client. And the PowerPoint starts with a slide that says, "Background," or maybe it's a handful of slides or maybe it's 10 slides. It's usually font 12 or 11 or 10, slightly too small to see, and you have paragraphs and paragraphs of background material. The thinking seems to be, "The more background information, the better off." That's complicated. The analogy here into framing is, think of yourself as a painter. As a painter, you're defining what belongs to the picture and what doesn't belong to the picture, and the more crowded picture is not necessarily a better one.

When we started to think about who gifted framers are, who are people who can distill a complex environment into just the essence of it, my co-writer, Albrecht Enders, and I went to storytellers. Storytellers are really good at boiling down the known universe to whichever part they want you to look at. And the ingredients of a good story typically are always the same. You have a hero or heroine, but a hero is a main protagonist, it can be a person, it can be a team of persons. And the hero aspires to get something, aspires to get a treasure. But if the story is any good, or if the decision is any complex, the hero can't just quite get to the treasure. There's an obstacle, there is a dragon.

We can distill any complex problem to a single question, or what we call a "Quest," which is always of the form, "How should the hero get the treasure given the dragon?" Very simple stuff, not so easy to get to that simplicity though. But the simplicity helps people, helps the problem owner, then, transport and explain their problem to a multitude of stakeholders in a simple way. By the way, so simple that even your teenage daughter would understand, or you retired mother would get.

MH: An added complexity when you're bringing people together, not just within an organization but within multiple large organizations, to collaborate on getting that treasure and slaying the dragon, is that, in many cases, those collaborators in the past have been competitors. How do we overcome that?

AC: I think it goes back to that notion of changing environments. And I imagine that, especially at Nokia, you've dealt a little bit with change, and you are dealing with change quite a bit. It again goes back to that notion of taking a step back and saying, "Hang on, what is it that I need to learn from the new place, and what is it that I need to unlearn?" And if we have been competitors in the past, okay, can we then move beyond this and perhaps recognize how we've been competitors? Then I'll say, based on that experience, now that we're no longer competitors, but we are now collaborators, let's make the best out of this.

MH: Right. Nokia, by your example, is collaborating with the communication service providers who are using that 5G and leveraging it for the public, as well as for private enterprise. But to be able to particularly do that for private enterprise, there is also a collaboration that needs to happen at the telecom level with Hyperscalers, those who run cloud platforms, which, under previous generations of the technology, would've been a competitor, but now they understand that to really leverage the power of 5G, you need to be working together with these former competitors. With that in mind, how are some of the traps that companies have experienced that you've been working with, what are some of those traps? How do we avoid them when we are trying to work with former competitors who are now collaborators?

AC: It's an interesting analogy or it's an interesting problem. It makes me think of something I look into, because, in a previous life, I was drafting policies for a university, and one dirty secret we don't like to talk about, university profs tend to think they don't have a boss. How do you get people who have not any interest in collaborating to get something and work developing something that's bigger than the sum of their parts? You might also find this into a few more areas, and there are a couple of places that I looked into where professional sports. Soccer, for instance, how you get 11 talented people, people with their own egos, how do you get them to work together so that in the end, it is important that one of us puts a goal, not all of us trying to put the goal?

I've seen it as well in the movie industry. I think the unsung heroes of any movies are the producers who are able to take the big ego actor with a big ego director and have them all work together. And when I interview people from these different walks of life, one thing that keeps on coming back is, "Treat your people as artists." They're really good in one part of what they do, but chances are, they're also very fragile in other parts. And you get to understand that fragility, and you get to understand that sometimes with pushback, it's not so much because they're opposed to the idea, but perhaps because they're trying to protect something else.

Applying to former competitors who are now working together, I think one of the key elements is to identify what we, as a group, would define as a great solution. Can we identify those values that are all important to us? Those decision criteria that we all value? And can we build a shared understanding on this? And your shared understanding of your values is always where you start the conversation during the project. As we all agree, what's important to us is both affordability and quality. Great. So, based on this, how do we move forward? Going back to those design principles helps you clarify and hopefully do away, a little bit, with personal agenda.

MH: I suppose this ties into my next question then, particularly for collaborators who are formerly competitors. How do you overcome mistrust?

AC: That's a tough one. I wish I had some empirical value or data on this, I do not. So, the little I've seen is, trust is rebuilt one step at a time, so we start from scratch. Maybe you start on small things, and you demonstrate that on small things you can work well together and take on the bigger thing. You'd need to speak with a colleague who studies more organizational behavior, but my take on this is, this is not something you're going to be able to rebuild overnight.

MH: Yeah. You need to build a safe space for that kind of collaboration.

AC: For sure. If we are talking about the notion of safe space, that's an interesting one. And we have some data from entire industries who've been extremely good at developing safe spaces. We certainly can learn from that.

MH: Is the future of work already here?

AC: Hah. That's a very good question, as well. How do you define future of work? I think all of us have our own definition of future of work. If we mean that there's a hybrid between us working together versus us being distributed, I'd say absolutely. And in fact, we have experiences of large organizations doing extremely well being distributed. The example that comes to mind is Automatic, which is the parent company of WordPress and a few others. And Matt Mullenweg has been distributed for well over a decade now, extremely successful there. So, in a way, yes, absolutely. The future of work already is here.

MH: How do we solve complex problems at a distance when some might be working from home, others might be on the other side of the globe?

AC: So that we put to a test at IMD during Covid, and we found out that we can create extremely effective teams, even at a distance. And by using a few online tools where people can bring their notes together and have access to the same documents and have heated debates, we absolutely can reproduce or even sometimes even surpass the level of quality that we get when we have people in the same room.

MH: If there was one takeaway for the audience from our conversation today, what would you like it to be?

AC: Problem solving is both an art and a science, but it doesn't have to be black magic. And being structured in how you approach it can go a long way. Now, frame, explore, decide, you take the initials, you get Fred, follow Fred to better solve problems. And I can see from here, some people in your audience already rolling their eyes saying, "Seriously?" And yet, that simplicity is useful because, yes, the process is simple. The tools to help you follow the process can be a little challenging at times to put in place, but what's most important is, in the end, you get to a simple solution. Doesn't mean that the process to get there was simple. But that simplicity is crucial because there's nowhere else to hide, there's no jargon behind which complexity, say, "Hmm, you don't quite get the picture, but if you did, you would understand that you would agree with me." No, by making it simple, we can build that shared understanding that hopefully bring different partners, different stakeholders, together.

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