Why the gnarliest problems remain unsolved.

Big and gnarly problems are the big white elephant in the room.

However apparent, they can’t be solved without a detailed understanding of the causes and difficulties that stand in the way of the solution.

It’s not for the lack of effort. It’s a lack of the right tools for solving them.

The most common tool organisations use to solve any problem is committees.

This approach doesn’t work for solving gnarly problems because when the stakes are high we fall victim to our biases.

The worst of them is the bias for action.

Rumelt1 explains that it’s “not a defect in the group process,” but “our bias towards calculation and choice rather than problem identification and comprehension“ that leaves no room for reflection.

This happens for two reasons:

  • Senior leaders (or the loudest people in the group) bring personal preferences as solutions, even before any analysis or discussion.
  • Then there are the individual preferences of the working group, all competing to be the only solution.

This inevitably steers the group away from analysis and towards a pre-determined preference.

It turns analysis into picking the most rational option from a handful of known alternatives without proper diagnosis.

Either way, you end up with wishful thinking masquerading as strategies.

Committees aren’t the problem. Ownership is.

All problems need an owner. Most of all the gnarliest problems.

To save yourself and your team from falling victim to this bias, you need to own the problem-solving process.

And you need to own it without an attachment to being the one who comes up with a solution.

Here’s a checklist I made based on Rumelt’s advice for problem-solving:

  1. Clearly articulate the problem first.
  2. Then explain the cause through analysis and diagnosis.
  3. And finally, define a clear set of actions leading to a solution.

Why a checklist?

Because checklists are the best way to turn good advice into a great habit.


  1. Richard Rumelt, The Crux: How Leaders Become Strategists ↩︎

About the Author

Hi! I’m Aliyar.

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