Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Make Better Decisions ✓

This week we dive deep on critical thinking and how it applies to problem-solving!

Hope you benefit from it!

Enjoy;

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Your future is nothing but the outcome of the decisions you make today. You make better decisions today, your future will be more prosperous, you make the wrong ones, then your future will be full of struggles.

So, today we are going to talk about critical thinking and how it applies to problem-solving.

I’ll give you a weird analogy here. Critical thinking ability is like having infrared goggles and looking at the sky at night.

Without it, You look at the space, you see only three things, you see darkness, stars, and sometimes planets. But the moment You put on your infrared goggles then you get to see all these beautiful things that were invisible before. You see giant gas clouds in the galaxy, you see dust, you see all these things that were previously impossible to see.

That’s what critical thinking is. It lets you identify the actual problems, the root causes, but also it helps you see the opportunities.

Now, critical thinking isn’t only applicable to your work. It’s applicable to every single area of your life.

But my channel is all about your career. So, that’s what’ll cover in this video.

Now, we need a framework. And the framework starts with

Problem Statement.

A problem statement is very similar to a project charter. It includes;

Goals, as in what are you trying to achieve, your success criteria, as in how will I know I succeeded or failed, your assumptions, timelines, and stakeholders involved.

It’s very similar to a project charter.

I am actually going to call this Problem Charter.

This document is very helpful for two reasons. The second reason being a lot more important than the first.

The first reason why it’s very helpful is that when you get engaged in that problem-solving mode, you start uncovering a lot of other symptoms, that may be caused by completely other root causes. We are not interested in that at that moment. You will document those, but you are not going to develop solution alternatives and develop action plans for those. Unless there are dependencies.

So, it helps you understand your scope, who to deal with, the timelines, it basically keeps everything under control.

But to be honest, in my decade-long consulting career, I noticed that the biggest help of having such a charter is all about moving through the bureaucracy.

Let me explain.

When you are going through problem-solving stages, you actually do a lot of work, you summon meetings, you request data from various departments, you request for expertise from consultants, so you are shaking things, you are moving things around.

Now, what gives you the power to do it?

What gives you the power to call all these people to a meeting room, what gives you the power to ask for certain analytics data from a completely different department? Why should they attend that meeting or give you the data you want?

Because they like you and they want to help you? What if they don’t like you.

Now if you are a senior employee, you are a manager, director, VP, then fine, of course, everyone will come into the meeting or give you the data you want. But if you are not that senior. Where does your power come from?

It comes from that document. The problem charter. Corporate companies aren’t usually very agile.

They move slowly and the employees are usually very – they are not lazy but they push back –They don’t want to stop what they are doing and join your little problem-solving brainstorm session and go through your little PowerPoint of fishbone analysis. They got their own thing to worry about.

So, if you have your problem charter, only a few pages, signed off by a sponsor, someone senior, then you have the power to get the data you want and bring in experts, and call for meetings.

Ok, now let’s continue;

I mean you developed the problem statement, you got your buy-in from someone senior, now, you are off to solve the problem.

The 2nd step in your critical thinking towards a problem is identifying the root causes, right?

We want to look at the symptoms or the consequences, and walk backward and identify the root causes.

There are various methods you can use. Like Fishbone analysis for relatively more complex ones, or for simple problems you can have 5 WHYs.

5 Whys is made famous by Toyota Production System.  As the name suggests, you ask WHY WHY WHY until you get to a root cause. Very simple stuff.

But what is not so simple is knowing when to stop. It’s not necessarily at the 5th question.

Because you actually can ask the infinite amount of WHYs. There is always a layer down. It never actually ends. I mean, If you have children, then you probably know what I am talking about.

So 5 is just an arbitrary number. Don’t take it literally.

Let’s run an example. An actual one.

This is actually a problem that got me into a lot of trouble.

So, the situation is that when I was at PwC Consulting, every time we have a downtime, meaning when we are not doing client work, we would engage in other work, like research, writing thought leadership articles, delivering pro bono speeches, or write proposals for new projects.

Now there was this one time when I couldn’t finish the proposal on time.

As a result, we couldn’t submit the document to client and client excluded us from the bids.

Now, that’s a potentially a million dollar loss for the firm. Because if we could just submit, we would most probably win the project.

This whole thing entirely was my mistake. I was leading the proposal development, I was the manager, and I had 2 senior associates working for me.

So, it was a big failure. I mean I messed up real good.

It’s really rare that anyone can say they cost their employer a million dollars – I can… and it is even rarer that they don’t get fired… I didn’t…

A definitely career milestone for me there. Not something you can see on my CV…

But anyway, let’s ask some WHYs…  Let’s analyze why I messed up.

let’s apply the 5 WHYs.

So, Deniz says, we couldn’t deliver the proposal on time.

Ok. Deniz, why?

It took us more time than I expected

Why – I estimated the time requirements, like how long it would take based on the previous similar projects. So, I looked at the previous RFPs Request for Proposals, and our proposal development time for those projects, and that’s how I estimated.

Now, stop.

Because it’s a dead end. Don’t ask more Whys. Because it is the best practice to estimating the time requirements of a proposal based on the previous similar ones. So, Deniz did the right thing here.

So, if you ask one more WHY. It will be detrimental.

Why did you look at the past RFPs?

Because it’s the best practice….

Oh…

See, my point.

So, it was the right action to take. But it was implemented poorly. So, I did the right thing by looking at the previous RFPs but I did a poor job in terms of analyzing the scope of work. I didn’t realize a small part of the scope involved expertise in social security systems – which I didn’t know much about. So, I had to work with a subject matter expert from our London office and I wasted a lot of time there with back and forth communication.

Let’s run one more example.

I am not an IT. But let’s give one example from IT.

Our software is slow in responding to inputs.

1st Why – Because the server is overloaded

2nd Why – Because we had a sudden peak in traffic

3rd Why – Because we got featured in a Tech Magazine which resulted in massive traffic boost.

Good. Now you know the reasons. It would be idiotic to continue asking why. It’s common sense. Why did we get featured in Tech Magazine? It’s a great thing for the business.

See, it makes no sense.

Instead, at that stage, a better question to ask, is why didn’t we anticipate this and put in place the contingency capacity in our server?

Then the answer to that would be; negligence; a human error, or lack of standard operating procedures, like whatever works.

So, I want to go back to the proposal example.

I want to talk more about finding root causes.

If you noticed, the problems I shared with you were fairly simple ones, right? And the reason they were simple was that there is a direct chain, direct connection between the consequence and the root cause. Why? Because Of X,

Why X? because of Z? Why Z… Well, that’s the root cause.

But it so happens that sometimes problems can’t be found by looking at the consequences or the symptoms. The root cause lies completely elsewhere that you just can’t connect. You know those situations right, where do you even start?

Now, let me give you another example of a problem that we faced very recently. That problem was actually the reason of my absence from YouTube for a while.

Let me share with you what happened and how we eventually identified the root cause.

You probably already know about my LIG program, right? It’s Landing Interviews Guaranteed. I know – horrible horrible name. I Don’t know what I was thinking.

So, I left PwC Consulting around 4 months ago to fully focus on my LIG program, and I usually spent most of my day helping LIG members get better jobs or pass their interviews. It’s an awesome program and I get about 10 to 15 new registrations every day. And LIG is the reason why I have this YouTube channel so I can talk about the program to you. Which I should do it more often.

Anyways, Now, about 3 weeks ago, something really bad happened.

So, from having about 10 to 15 registrations every day, all of a sudden we got nothing. No registration. No one enrolled. Then comes the next day, again nothing. Then 3rd day again nothing, 4th day again nothing.

I mean you can imagine how I felt in that situation, right? It’s my livelihood. I mean I left a pretty amazing career with PwC and took a big risk with LIG and The Career Mastery. And it’s all crashing down. It’s like war mode on. So, for about 4 days I got nothing more than 5 hours of sleep. I was a walking zombie constantly asking WHY, WHY, WHY? You know the 5 Whys we covered, they became 500 Whys.

So, the first obvious questions;

Is it the payment processor? Nope, we tested it. It worked fine.

Is the traffic to site down? Are people not coming to the site? We checked Google Analytics. It’s all fine. We still get a lot of referral traffic.

Is the server down? We checked the server logs, it was all fine. There was no downtime, even in peak times.

I mean me and Jeanette, my assistant, we literally came up with more than 100 potential causes and we ran tests for every single one of them. No sleep for 4 days. Nothing.

Now after 4 days of constant struggle. Like constant effort to understand what is going on. I got really depressed. No sleep, nothing, I don’t even know who to go to. Like who is the person that can help us understand what’s going on.

So, in my misery, I went home to my sweet couch, opened up a bottle of Vodka, I grabbed the whole bottle, turned on my TV, and literally drinking to my misery… I searched for the most depressing movie of all time; Hachiko. If you are a dog owner, I don’t care if you are the toughest person alive, that movie will make you cry your eyes out.

And started watching it. After watching for an hour, all of a sudden, a very interesting idea came to my mind…

Was I somehow hacked? Was like the whole thing some sort of sophisticated hacking?

It was. The hackers somehow made everything look normal to us, and all the visitors from 2 cities I live in; Dubai, and Vancouver. But anyone else who would come to the site, they would see a maintenance note. The site is under construction. They even put a weird video to make the visitors stay in the site a bit longer so I wouldn’t understand what’s going on by looking at the user behavior metrics.

We got hacked!

Anyway,

I understood the root cause, not because I followed a Fishbone diagram or 5 WHYS. I asked 500 Whys…

Do you know why I was able to solve the problem?

Can you guess why the potential root cause popped up in my mind?

Let’s get nerdy a bit.

I was able to solve the problem because my brainwaves changed. I didn’t do it purposely but I am glad it did.

When I relaxed and stopped focusing on the problem. My brainwaves turned from being predominantly Beta to Alpha.

Now, there are 4 types of brain frequencies, these are like the frequency bands;

we have beta;

beta is when your brain emits between 14 to 20 cycles per second of electrical impulse,

then we have alpha which is between 7 to 14 cycles per second, then we have theta, and delta, you go into delta when you are in deep sleep.

Now, The Beta waves are what gives us the logical thinking, problem-solving, and managing our daily activities. Beta is your management consultant.

But the problem is, In crisis situations, your beta waves go into overdrive.  Our heads have full of multiple thoughts competing for our attention. is it the server, is it the payment processor, is it the domain, is it the traffic. That’s when you are very logical, analytical, but when the beta is in overdrive, your creativity goes down to zero. If there is no logical connection between the problem and root cause, then you will fail to create the bridge – which is exactly what happened to me for 4 days straight.

No sleep nothing, constantly problem-solving mode. Calling the server company, calling payment provider, calling Google, looking at user metrics and charts, like a constant battle.

But then somehow when I relaxed the 4th day in my couch, the brain relaxed and it started emitting electrical pulses in Alpha frequency.

And Alpha brainwaves are the bridge between our conscious and subconscious mind. Alpha brainwave is like Steve Jobs. Your creative side.

It’s the waves responsible for bringing that great idea from the back of our minds.

So, when I finally got relaxed, they got activated.

And they created such an absurd nonsense suggestion. Did I get hacked? What the… Hmmm…

Now, this example is done.

Let’s continue with our framework and let’s briefly talk about developing and evaluating alternatives.

Let’s go back to the proposal example.

We identified the problem. The root cause was the fact that I wrongly estimated how long it would take to prepare the proposal. I looked at the past examples and made a poor estimation.

Now, let’s move on to the 3rd Stage in our problem-solving.

Which is the fact that we need to develop a few solution alternatives;

In our example, the objective is to make sure it never happens again. That I or any of the managers never miss a single submission date for proposals.

So, let’s write down potential alternatives;

Alternative 1; We can add 20% contingency time reserve to all the future proposals. So, if we think it’s going to take 4 days, we can schedule 5 days for proposal development.

Alternative 2; We can hire a proposal manager. Someone who will help us develop the proposals on time. That person will be like the project manager for all proposals in the firm. Not a bad idea.

Alternative 3; We can add more resources to the proposal development team, as in people, instead of having 1 manager and 2 senior associates, we can have 1 manager and 3 senior associates for similar proposals.

Now which of these alternatives is the best one?

Can you think of it? Can you evaluate?

You can’t. Not yet.

To evaluate anything, we need criteria. In this situation, I’ll have 4 criteria;

First one is; potential impact (positive)

Second one is potential threat,

Third one is ease of implementation,

And maybe the final one is alignment with overall strategy

Just a deep note here, you may also assign weight scores to each criterion. For example, you may want to give more weight to ease of implementation than alignment with strategy. So it would be like 30% weight for impact, 30% weight for potential threats, 35% weight for ease of implementation, and 5% weight for alignment with strategy. But in this example, we don’t need it.

So, from the potential future positive impact standpoint, I see no difference between alternative A, B, and C. They will all get the job done. Not necessarily better or worse.

But from a potential threat perspective, hiring a new person is costly. It’s a cost intensive solution. It’ll cost us another 100,000 dollars a year.

And the other one is, ease of implementation.

Now from the ease of implementation standpoint, adding 20% time contingency is the easiest one. This means these team members will get back to their daily projects just a day later. And that’s also not certain. Only if we tap into those time contingency. We may not need it at all.

So, once we run the complete evaluation, the overall winner is Recommendation A – which is adding 20% contingency time reserve in our schedules.

Now, we know the winner, the next thing to do is to create an implementation plan/ or action plan. Now, this one is super simple in our case. Your case may be different though.

But in this example, All we need to do is send out an internal memo to all relevant parties and let them know about the new procedure. Or maybe update our manuals and SOPs, standard operating procedures. That’s it.

But if the action you need to take is more complicated, then you need to approach it as a project. And run it as a project. I have a video on project management fundamentals. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s really good. Please take a look at it in my channel.

Let me just quickly recap;

Start with Problem Statement – We do that because we want to get a buy-in so we can use the resources, and move things around.

Step 2 – Identify the root causes. There are various techniques available to you here, including fishbone, 5 Whys, and others. For most simple projects you can always do 5 WHYs. But remember not to take it literally. 5 is just an arbitrary number.

Step 3 – Develop potential solutions. Just jot them down. Don’t think about whether they would work or not. Not at that stage.

Step 4- Evaluate alternatives based on the criteria you developed, such as; potential threat, potential impact, ease of implementation, alignment with strategy.

Step 5 – Execute it. If it’s something simple. Don’t complicate it. Send out a memo or update the manual or if it’s a complex solution, then treat it as a project.

 

We’re done! I hope you benefited from this video!

See you next week!