Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Ken Watanabe’s Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People will probably be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read.
Watanabe, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, studied at both Yale and Harvard Business School Later, he started his own media company, Delta Studio. He wrote the book after hearing discussion among Japanese business leaders, educators, and politicians on the need for Japan’s educational system to become more innovative and shift from rote-memorization to problem-solving.

Problem Solving 101 began as a simple guide to teach Japanese schoolchildren critical thinking as well as problem solving skills. However, because of the effectiveness of his methods, the book became an international business bestseller.

Easy to use problem-solving techniques

As organisations increasingly strive to become innovative and do more with fewer resources, problem solving is more important than ever. Watanabe distills problem solving techniques and methodologies honed from his days as a McKinsey consultant. He uses a very accessible format that’s straightforward to implement in the workplace.

As Watanabe initially wrote the book for children, it is extremely easy for an adult reader to grasp the concepts and tools used. Many management and business books use technical language and can be quite complex to read. This book, however, makes liberal use of pictures, charts, and graphs which make it very easy to follow. The language is very straightforward and clear –  exactly how a problem solving process should be.

And most importantly, the content is sophisticated enough for adults to use. The author introduces a step-by-step process designed to identify the root of a problem and explore all options before taking appropriate actions to solve it.

The four steps to resolving a problem

Watanabe argues that there are four steps used in successfully solving a problem.

  1. Step one involves understanding the current situation. What specifically is the problem?
  2. Step two is identifying the root cause of the problem. What are the actual factors that are causing this problem?
  3. Step three is developing an effective plan of action.
  4. Finally, step four involves implementing the plan of action, while monitoring your progress making appropriate modification, until you solve the problem.

The steps are implemented through a process of hypothesis and analysis.

Watanabe explains this process very clearly and concisely.  He uses simple stories that both children and adults can identify with to further the concepts. For example, school rock band ‘The Mushroom Lovers’ need to find a way to improve their concert attendance. They work through the problem solving process to increase the awareness of their concerts and optimize their popularity. Or which school should Kiwi, a talented soccer player, choose to refine her skills. Her story teaches the reader the importance of exploring different options and how to calibrate the pros and cons of a decision.

Other problem solving techniques

Watanabe also explore several McKinseyesque techniques. These include

  • Logic Tree
  • Yes/No Tree
  • Problem-Solving Design Plan
  • Hypothesis Pyramid
  • Pros and Cons/Criteria
  • Evaluation

Watanabe goes through each technique is precisely. Therefore, it is clear where each one fits into the overall problem solving process.

The book makes the point that problem solving isn’t a talent only available to some. Instead rather it is a habit you can learn. As Ken Watanabe explains: “Problem solving is easy when you know how to set a clear goal, figure out how to reach it, and follow through while reviewing your progress and making changes to your plan as necessary.”

Isobel Tynan is a senior Learning & Talent Development Professional and AC accredited coach. She has 15 years experience within the Professional Services and engineering sectors in the UK, France and Ireland. As an accredited coach with the Association for Coaching, Isobel coaches individuals transitioning into new roles and taking up leadership positions. Isobel has a particular interest on the career advancement of females in the professional and financial services. She has also guest lectured in DCU on this topic.

Anne Sexton

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