Organisation : Rigorous Thinking Ensures Better Solutions

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. Dan is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels.

Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential. Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.

E-mail: and visit

Mark D. Steele, PE - MPDSS, LLC, Interim CEO. Mark has served as GM, President or CEO and board advisor for more than a half dozen troubled business situations serving private equity investors in manufacturing and wholesale distribution settings. Mark has also served as an adjunct professor or Operations Management and Business Strategy at three colleges. Mark earned his MSIA/MBA from Carnegie Mellon University and his engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Mark can be reached at

Are you or your organization facing a knotty problem? What’s the difference between success and failure?

Often it’s the difference in the quality of thinking or planning that goes into the efforts to reach the goal. This doesn’t mean that bright people will be successful and that others will not. Bright people, thinking sloppily are not likely to be successful either when the issue is taxing. The best likelihood of a successful solution comes with rigorous thinking and methodical planning. By “rigorous thinking” we are talking about a disciplined, focused approach to adequately thinking through a problem, from the way the question is framed until an effective solution is produced. Rigorous thinking is careful. It is planned. It is thorough. When Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon within the decade, NASA scientists didn’t just point and shoot. Your problem might not be that complex, but pointing and shooting isn’t a good strategy for you either.

All too often, in a busy work environment, people assigned to do the thinking are too rushed, distracted, or overwhelmed to think well. They shoot from the hip. They extemporize. They’ll tell you that they are too busy to research a problem thoroughly. They have too much to do to develop a comprehensive plan. They’ll tell you that they’ll problem solve as they go because they have to dig in and get going right now. The problem is, however, that the issue is no less important because they are busy. It is no less complex or daunting because they have too many other things to do. The fact of the matter is that while these thoughts may be soothing to the problem-solver, what they are really saying is that they are too harried to give the problem more than a lick and a promise. When the success of the enterprise, the effectiveness of a strategy, or the profitability of our efforts are concerned anything less than rigorous thinking is insufficient. Yet people often don’t understand how their particular solutions will be expected to fit in with the efforts of others. Too often members of the same team have different understandings of the specifics of a successful solution.

For their part, organizations need to do more than hope for rigorous thinking; they must support what they expect. They need to teach what rigorous thinking means in their environment. Then they must provide a realistic context within which they want that thinking to occur. Leaders must model the way. Leaders must encourage mental triage and allow others to reflect before they react. They must provide people with the mental space to approach problems in a rigorous way. And they must keep some oversight of problem-solving plans and efforts rather than delegating and forgetting until the solution is delivered. Problems don’t always need an immediate response. Some problems are perishable in that if we leave them alone, they will sometimes solve themselves. Wise people can assess the difference.

Picture David Caradine in the Kung Fu television show, with his the wise teacher when someone approaches them with a problem. The impetuous student may wish to jump into action immediately while his mentor points out that, “Instantaneously swatting flies is fine, but hitting a raging bull with a fly- swatter is another matter altogether.”

The outline below is a guide to rigorously thinking through a solution to a problem. If you have a boss, a partner, or a team leader brief them on your thinking as you go. If you are working alone, seek input from a friend, colleague, or mentor. Here is a template that we believe can set the standard for rigorous thinking, while providing a working definition for what is too often just a touchy-feely admonition. While not every item may be relevant to your specific problem, working through the list will ensure the right degree of intellectual rigor.

  • State the problem succinctly, citing relevant facts and figures, where applicable. Be as clear as possible about being specific the problem that you face. If you can’t state the problem in 15 words or less you may not yet truly understand it.
  • Clarify your understanding the problem’s context (your role, your boundaries, and the duration of the problem).
  • Validate that you own the problem. Validate whether doing nothing will do no harm. Don’t waste energy or capital on something that is likely to dissolve or resolve itself with time.
  • What are the consequences of brining attention to the issue?
  • What will a successful solution look like? (This is important because it will give you criteria to measure your work against as you move along.)
  • What do I intend to accomplish – what’s to be gained by a good solution?
  • What resources do I have to work with?
  • What are my perceived obstacles to success?
  • Who or what constituencies are naturally aligned with me?
  • Who or what constituencies are most likely to present resistance?
  • Do the constituencies have superior power?
  • What are my assumptions in framing my answers to the above questions?
  • What emotions or bias might be coloring my focus on this problem/issue?
  • Do I feel alone or unique in my perception of this as a problem/issue?
  • Identify your main assumptions
  • Check them with someone else to gain perspective
  • Who do I know that has relevant expertise for solving this problem/issue?
  • Who in my network might know someone that could help me more efficiently solve this issue/problem?
  • Can I make an appeal to someone internally or externally in a much higher position of power or authority to solve this more efficiently?
  • Are those assumptions valid? How can I best validate my own assumptions?
  • What does my research show?
  • What key search terms did I use? (Run them by others for suggestions.)
  • What makes me feel appropriately positioned to own and solve this problem/issue?
  • Has someone else tackled this problem?
  • What issues did they encounter?
  • How did they succeed?
  • What can I adapt from what they did? (The goal here isn’t to simply identify problems but to deliver solutions.)
  • What analogs or models might already exist for solving this type or family of problem?
  • What is my plan from moving from my situation today to get to where I want to be?
  • Does this require a project plan?
  • If so, what are the Objectives, Strategies, Possible Sub-projects, Tactics, Plans, Tasks and Subtasks required to ensure successful completion of the project?
  • What are the times required for each?
  • What are the risks inherent in the schedules?
  • What contingencies must be considered?
  • What are the required resources and costs?
  • What are the key steps in my plan?
  • What resources/knowledge do I have or need to have in executing my plan?
  • When I work my plan, what are my intermediate objectives (from short-term to long-term)?
  • What is my expected time frame for hitting my objectives on the way to my goal? What are the time breakdowns and sensitivities or required slack times?
  • What are the probabilities of accomplishing key milestones?
  • What is the compound probability?
  • What happens if I fall behind or get off course? (Diagnose the shortfall.)
  • Is there something I need to learn?
  • Do I have to acquire a skill?
  • Do I really know how to plan for something of this scale?
  • Am I really willing and able to commit the time, energy and focus on this at the exclusion of other interests and commitments?
  • Do I have the resources I need?
  • Is the problem one of motivation? (Mine or someone else’s)
  • How will I act to address the problem and get back on track?
  • Have I successfully reached the goal?
  • What timeframe will I use to evaluate my progress?
  • Will I embrace someone as an advisor to help keep me on task?
  • Are there unexpected consequences?
  • Unexpected benefits?
  • What did I learn?

Taking the time to answer these questions well before you begin will make a good solution flow quickly and avoid rework and false starts along the way. It will ensure better solutions. If the outline seems too long, too detailed, or unrealistic then you are really saying that you are.

Copyright 2010 Dan Elash & Mark D. Steele

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