Structure is Important (Duh!)

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.


I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.


The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.


Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.


So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.


First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.


1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.


Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.


Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.


7 Responses to Structure is Important (Duh!)

  1. Mary says:

    This post has such good timing because we are starting to jot down recommendations. Napkins are so good for taking notes -they are not given enough credit. When you are eating and talking, its a good environment for coming up with ideas.

  2. Valdrin says:

    McKinsey Speakers came at the best time possible, just before getting into the projects. In addition, what is more important, they were a great refresher before our graduation in May 2009. It’s too bad that we cannot take those slides with us!

    I believe we haven’t emphasize enough the importance of being structured. It seems that there is never enough structure in Consulting. McKinsey guys brought up a great table that shows all issues with their respective hypothesis and analysis required for each sub issue. What is more important, the table included the person responsible for the research on each issue. I believe that table is valuable not only to avoid team conflicts, but also to organize the research in a smoother/better way.

    However, I still don’t know when is enough when it comes to research. There are plenty of great resources and is hard to stop looking for more and more information.

    I would like to see a post from you emphasizing the importance of social activities as a tool to build a better/stronger/friendlier team.

    Great post by the way 🙂

  3. Valdrin – Thanks for the comment. I agree about always needing a “booster shot” on some of these basic principles. I’ll do something on team dynamics soon. It’s something I feel we could emphasize more. The team contract helps add structure to this, but there is always a softer side of getting to know each other early that makes the tougher times around key deadlines etc. more manageable.

  4. Teresa says:

    I think the structure proposed above would significantly improve the success of any project…. unfortunately I rarely see it practiced in Corporate America. Any thoughts on how to get internal projects teams to adopt a more structured project approach? Thinking outloud… maybe the first step would be to get the people in the room to agree we’re working on a project and not a task.

  5. Teresa – I like your approach in terms of getting acknowledgment on scope. I think there’s often an impatience, or rush to action because everyone is either really busy or not invested in the outcome (ie: “let’s just get this done”). I think a big part of getting buy in is pro-actively taking the marker in your hand and going to the white board and laying out a basic question/problem statement and then having the self-confidence to let people tear it apart without being invested in your own position. People are happy to “critique” once presented with something. They are also forced to articulate their thoughts/objections. “Engagement”, however, is a whole other post 🙂

  6. Teresa says:

    That’s a great idea. I’m going to bring a marker to my next meeting!!

  7. […] Problem Solving 101 Much of my teaching is focused on how to effectively define a problem, how to go about solving it using discipline and various techniques and then how to frame to recommendations so that others will take action. I have written on this in the past as well. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: