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Book Summary – Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything

As our environment and work become more complex and less routine, problem-solving has become one of the most essential skills in the modern workplace. In this book, Charles Conn and Robert McLean present a proven 7-step approach which you can use to solve virtually all types of problems. In this Bulletproof Problem Solving summary, you’ll learn how to hone your problem-solving skills and master the 7 steps to solve problems effectively.

Problem Solving in the 21st Century

Problem-solving has become a critical skill in the 21st century. Today, we’re surrounded by “Big Data” and sophisticated computing and modelling tools. At the same time, we’re facing problems that are bigger, more complex and dynamic, and our work is becoming less structured or predictable. Organizations need people who can learn quickly, think critically and creatively, and work with both humans and machines to solve complex problems.

Good problem-solving requires a proper process, so you can define a problem clearly, break it down into manageable parts, and work systematically towards a great solution. The Bullet Proof Problem-Solving framework was developed by McKinsey & Company, renowned management consulting firm.

This framework is a complete problem-solving process that can be used at an individual, organizational or even social/government level. It can be applied to any type of problem, from simple linear problems to those with complex interdependencies.

You can also use it in an iterative cycle to reach an interim solution, then repeat the process to build on your understanding and answers from previous iterations.

Here’s an overview of the 7 Bulletproof Problem Solving steps: Define, Disaggregate, Prioritize, Workplan, Analyze, Synthesize and Communicate.

Bulletproof Problem Solving summary - overview of the 7 steps

The 7 Steps of Bulletproof Problem Solving

Now, let’s take a quick look at what the 7 steps entail. Do get our complete 16-page Bulletproof Problem Solving summary for a detailed breakdown of each step with examples.

Step 1: Define the Problem Clearly

Know what exactly you’re trying to solve in terms of the expected output and time frame. A well-defined problem provides a good starting point to save you lots of time later in the decision-making process. It must be concrete and measurable, yet leave enough room for creativity and unexpected developments.

You can get the steps and criteria for problem definition in the full Bulletproof Problem Solving summary.

Step 2: Disaggregate the Problem

Break the problem into its component parts or simpler issues, so you can form your hypotheses for testing.

One of the quickest and most effective ways to breakdown or cleave a problem is through logic trees. These are like mental maps of a problem to let you clearly visualize the problem. You can use logic trees to:
• See all the component parts of the problem;
• Identify possible paths or options; and
• Isolate and prioritize the most important parts (step 3).

You can learn more about the principles of good logic trees, and when to apply different types of logic trees (including Factor Trees, Inductive Logic Trees, Deductive Logic Trees, Hypothesis Trees and Decision Tree) from our full summary.

Step 3: Prioritize—Prune the Logic Tree

Every organization has finite resources, and it won’t make sense to address every element in your logic tree. This step is about prioritizing the most important parts of the logic tree, to create the biggest impact with the least resources.

Your goal is to find the Critical Path that allows you to make the best use of your energy and resources. You must concurrently focus on your areas of priority and  discard or prune away the other branches:

Bulletproof Problem Solving summary - finding your critical path

And, ideally, brainstorm as a team to get a more comprehensive perspective.

Step 4: Develop a Workplan and Timetable

Now that you’ve identified and prioritized the key parts of the problem, you can create a workplan to assign specific tasks and resources to team members.

Do check out our complete Bulletproof Problem Solving summary for more insights on (i) what to look out for in developing your workplan, (ii) the ideal sequence of analysis, (iii) how to use “One Day Answers” to consolidate your understanding of a problem, and (iv) how to build sound structures and processes to problem-solve effectively as a team.

Step 5: Analyze the Problem Objectively

With a workplan in place, you can start to analyze the problem. To save time/effort, start with simpler tools (e.g. first‐cut heuristics and root cause thinking) for a quick initial diagnosis. Use complex tools only for the components that need more work. Learn more about these tools in our full summary!

Step 6: Synthesize Findings

Integrate the individual conclusions from the previous steps into a full, coherent picture, so you can test the accuracy of your conclusion and convince others that your solution is the best possible one. Often, this process unveils new insights that you may have missed when you were immersed in the details.

Step 7: Communicate your Findings

Create a compelling storyline that links the problem statement to the final conclusion. Present an overarching argument, supported by the situation-observation-conclusion  logic from your One-Day-Answers, and findings from the previous steps. More tips and examples/illustrations can be found in our full Bulletproof Problem Solving summary.

Dealing with Uncertain or Complex Problems

The 7-step Bullet Proof Problem-Solving Framework can be used for all types of problems. But what happens if you encounter problems with long timeframes and high levels of uncertainty?

For example, how do you address the impact of rising sea levels over the next 5 decades, or choose the right education/career given the uncertainty of the job market in 20-30 years? The McKinsey team divided uncertainty into 5 levels:

• Level 1 has the shortest timeframe with the lowest level of uncertainty, e.g. predicting sales for the next quarter.

• Level 2 involves alternative futures arising from specific events, e.g. Brexit or whether the UK would withdraw from the EU.

• Level 3 involves a range of possible futures and you can’t tell which ones are more likely, e.g. the role of fossil fuels compared to other energy sources in 15 years.

• Level 4 involves real uncertainty—situations where we can’t confidently foresee nor predict the outcomes, e.g. the Manhattan sea levels in 2050.

• Level 5 are the “unknown unknowns”. These are things we can’t possibly foresee (e.g. a meteorite hitting Earth) given our existing knowledge and technology.

You can still use the 7 steps to systematically work through potential strategies and find a resolution. The appropriate response will depend on (i) the nature and level of uncertainty and (ii) your own risk tolerance. For example, you can do nothing, try to buy time, purchase information to run complex modelling, buy hedges or insurance to protect yourself against risks, make moves that you won’t regret no matter the outcome, etc.

Do also check out our full summary for tips on how to deal with “wicked problems” which are extremely complex and hard to solve.

Getting the Most from “Bulletproof Problem Solving”

If you’re ready to start bringing your problem-solving skills to the next level, do check out our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 16-page text summary, and a 31-minute audio summary.
Bulletproof Problem Solving summary - Book Summary Bundle

This is an extremely comprehensive book to equip anyone with the skills and processes to become a good problem-solver. The authors explain the 7 steps in great detail, and present 30 real‐world case-studies complete with illustrations, tables, logic trees and charts to show how the framework can be applied. The examples cut across a range of individual, organizational and national scenarios, from airport capacity planning to education and setting the right prices for a business startup. The book also comes with other technical concepts, tips, suggested problems for you to try, and various worksheets (for defining your problem, prioritizing the key variables, developing your workplan and storyline). You can purchase the book here or visit for more details and resources.

Looking for a simplified version to problem solving? Then do check out our summary for Problem Solving 101!  And broaden your perspective with our Factfulness summary!

About the Authors of Bulletproof Problem Solving

Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything was written by Charles Conn and Robert McLean.

Charles R. Conn is a Canadian and American entrepreneur, investor, and author. He’s the co-founder of Monograph, a life sciences venture firm. Previously, he was the CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation, Ticketmaster-Citysearch, and Rhodes Trust. Conn serves/served on many company and nonprofit boards. He began his career at McKinsey & Company as a Partner and leader in the strategy and energy practices. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School, Boston University, and Oxford University.

Robert McLean is a Director Emeritus of McKinsey and Company. He led the Australian and New Zealand McKinsey practice for 8 years and served on the firm’s global Director’s Committee. He was Dean of the Australian Graduate School of Management. He’s also an investor, and a director of the Paul Ramsay Foundation. He is a graduate of the University of New England in Australia and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

Bulletproof Problem Solving Quotes

“Our aim is simple: to enable readers to become better problem solvers in all aspects of their lives.”

“Good problem solvers are made not born.”

“A well-defined problem is a problem half-solved.”

“Good Problem solving is equal parts ‘What you do’ vs ‘What you don’t do’.”

“Problem solving done well translates into action that improves our circumstances.”

Click here to download Bulletproof Problem Solving summary & infographic

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