McKinsey’s Flexons

In the MicKinsey Quarterly is an article: “Five routes to more innovative problem solving”

Tricky problems must be shaped before they can be solved. To start that process, and stimulate novel thinking, leaders should look through multiple lenses.
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By Olivier Leclerc and Mihnea Moldoveanu

They describe something they call the “Flexon” approach.

I commented “The flexons approach outlined in the article may well be suitable for problems that can be well defined and analyzable. However there is a very large class of problems that cannot easily be defined and analysed. These are known as wicked problems and arise in many social and business environments.

While I agree that “Tricky problems must be shaped before they can be solved”, I suggest that the first thing any problem solver should identify is what class of problem they are facing. One classification scheme is tame/complex/wicked.

A tame problem has an obvious solution. It is easy to show that the solution solves the problem.

A complex problem is one that can be well defined, but does not have an obvious solution. It may have multiple solutions but it is possible to demonstrate that a particular solution will solve the problem and different solutions can be compared.

A wicked problem is not easily defined, there is no obvious solution, any solution may change the problem, it is not easy to demonstrate that the solution will solve the problem and it is not possible to objectively compare solutions.

The Flexon approach is appropriate for tame and complex problems but is totally unsuitable for wicked problems. Unfortunately, wicked problems are very common in business. The CEO introduces a new policy designed to reduce costs and employee behaviors changes such that a whole new class of costs get created. A new law is passed requiring doctors to report child abuse and the parents of abused children stop taking them to the doctor thus reducing the health care the child receives. A large internet company changes its terms and conditions and there is a huge negative public reaction and they have to back down.

These are often called unintended consequences. However, the real issue is that the problem has not been properly classified, understood or resolved.

Most problem solving goes wrong with the first few assumptions. Assuming that there is a Flexon approach that will address wicked problems is likely to be one of those assumptions.

The article claims that the Flexon approach “can be useful in a wide range of situations …”. I suggest that the article should provide a guide as to where it is not useful. Using the wrong approach is where most problem solving goes wrong.

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