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Everyone faces problems, be it students, working professionals, or a country’s prime minister. What do you do when you get stuck with a complex problem, or struggle to choose between different paths or options?  In this book, Ken Watanabe presents a simple but powerful approach that can be used by anyone to solve any problem, big or small. In this free version of the Problem Solving  101 summary, you’ll get a quick overview of the key steps and tools involved.

What is Problem Solving 101 About?

Prior to writing this book, Ken Watanabe worked as a consultant with McKinsey & Company, helping companies worldwide to solve complex problems. This book captures the problem-solving tools and approach that he used.

Watanabe originally wrote Problem Solving 101 as a guide to teach critical-thinking to Japanese schoolchildren. The book was so effective that it quickly became an international bestseller for readers of all ages.

This method and approach in this book can guide and expand your thinking, to help you find solutions to any problem, dream or goal—be it to learn a new skill, develop your dream career, or solve a global crisis.

In complete 15-page Problem Solving 101 summary, we’ve distilled the key ideas in 2 parts:
(i) Mindset and approach for effective problem-solving; and
(ii) The 4 steps and toolkit for solving any problems, including 2 detailed examples to illustrate how to apply the problem-solving tools and techniques.

For now, let’s take a quick look at what this approach looks like:

Effective Problem Solving

The Problem-Solving Mindset

Problem-solving isn’t an inborn talent; it’s a set of skills, attitudes, and processes that can be learned.

Watanabe uses 5 types of problem-solvers to illustrate the ingredients behind great problem-solving:

Problem Solving 101 summary - 5 Types of Problems-Solvers

Defeatists give up easily and feel victimized by circumstances. They choose to avoid problems, and give up when confronted by the slightest difficulties. They say things like “I can never do that,” and blame others for not understanding or supporting them.

Critics are always shooting down others’ plans, without lifting a finger to solve the problem themselves. They stay on the sidelines, complaining, criticizing, and saying things like “That’s a stupid idea” or “I told you so.”

Daydreamers are always dreaming up new ideas. But, they keep their heads in the clouds, refusing to explore tangible plans or take concrete action. They can be heard saying things like: “If only this could happen” or “Don’t bother me with details!”

Dynamos jump into action without planning ahead. They’re enthusiastic, optimistic, and perseverant. But, they don’t stop to think things through, or to understand a problem before charging ahead. As a result, they waste time and energy doing things that are often ineffective. When they fail to get results, they simply push harder, saying things like, “I can’t stop now…I must keep going!”

“Problem-solving kids” combine thinking and acting to solve problems effectively.
• They examine a problem to identify its root cause, develop a plan, take action, learn from both success and failures, and keep adjusting their plans as new challenges appear.
• They break down ambitious goals dream into smaller, bite-sized milestones. They say things like, “What’s the root cause of this problem?” or “Let’s fix X, Y, and Z in 3 months.”
• As a result, they achieve their goals more quickly, and also learn and evolve much faster than the other 4 types of problem-solvers.

The 4 Steps of Problem-Solving

When you see a doctor, they’d analyze your symptoms (e.g. fever, aches) to diagnose the root cause (e.g. flu), to prescribe the cure (flu medicine). Likewise, to solve any problem, you must first diagnose the root cause. Problem solving can be broken down into 4 steps:

  • Understand the current situation or issue.
  • Identify the root cause of the problem.
  • Develop an effective action plan.
  • Execute until the problem is solved, making adjustments as needed along the way.

Problem Solving 101 summary - 4 Problem-Solving Steps

You need all 4 steps to solve a problem effectively. Once you’ve learned how to break a problem down into small, manageable chunks that you can solve, you can stay calm in face of any challenge—no matter how big or scary.

Here’s a simple example: Let’s imagine that you’re trying to improve your physical fitness, but not getting the results you want. An average person might just assume that he/she must train harder. However, if you were a problem-solving kid, you’d approach it differently.

• Identify the problem: “I’m not seeing the improvement in physical fitness I want.”

• Break down the problem into sub-parts. In this case, you might realize that you’re falling short in 3 specific areas: cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility.

• From there, you’d analyze each area, then narrow down to potential root causes. For example:
(i) Cardio: Lack of intensity or variation;
(ii) Muscle strength: Incorrect weight or incomplete muscle group engagement; and
(iii) Flexibility: Consistently overlooking stretching.

• This level of specificity helps you to develop a targeted plan for each of the 3 areas of fitness, to deliver much better results than simply trying to “be more disciplined” or to “train more”.

Problem-Solving Skills, Steps and Tools

In our complete, 15-page version of the Problem Solving 101 summary, we:

• Break down the earlier 4 problem-solving steps into sub-parts;

• Explain and illustratet the analytical tools you can use in each phase, including: Logic Tree, Yes/No Tree, Hypothesis Pyramid, Pros and Cons Grid, Criteria-Evaluation Table, and Prioritization Matrix.

• Illustrate them with 2 detailed examples, including (i) how an enterprising student, Mimi, managed to increase the number of customers for her pop-up food stand, and (ii) how a marketing manager , Alex, managed to evaluate his options and take his first steps to make a career transition into data science.

For example, we saw how Mimi analyzed the sales challenge for her hot-dog stand, using the Logic Tree to visualize the potential root causes of her problem and organize them into categories.  This tool can also be used to generate/organize possible solutions.

Problem Solving 101 summary - Sample of a Logic Tree

Then, she used the Yes/No Tree explore the issue further and guide her decision-making, before developing her hypotheses, testing them, then defining a plan to address the identified causes.

Problem Solving 101 summary - Sample of a Yes/No Tree

Getting the Most from Problem Solving 101

Using the tools and examples, you’ll learn how to solve problems and achieve your goals more effectively by researching the problem, exploring the issues and solutions, planning and testing your hypotheses, asking for help, and constantly challenging your own thought processes and conclusions.

Ready to become a more effective problem-solver? Do check out our full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, 15-page text summary, and a 25-minute audio summary.
Problem Solving 101 summary - book summary bundle

In our summary, we’ve distilled and reorganized the key ideas, with our own detailed examples to illustrate how you can use the tools/ideas.  The book itself is full of illustrations, charts, tables, and examples to bring Ken Watanabe’s ideas to life. He uses 3 different sets of case studies including:
• The Mushroom Lovers: A new rock band that wanted to improve their concert attendance;
• John Octopus: A young man who aspired to become a computer graphics animator and Hollywood movie director, and needed to buy a computer to start learning CGI; and
• Kiwi: a soccer player who wanted find the best school in Brazil to hone her soccer skills and become bilingual/bicultural.

The beauty of this book lies in its simplicity, and you can purchase the book here.

But, if you’d like a more comprehensive take of the same problem-solving approach from McKinsey & Company, do check out our Bulletproof Problem Solving summary.

About the Author of Problem Solving 101

Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People was written by Ken Watanabe. Watanabe grew up bilingual in Japan and studied in the United States at Yale and Harvard Business School. He was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company for six years. He is now the founder and CEO of his own education, entertainment and media company, Delta Studio.

Problem Solving 101 Quotes

“There’s a fundamental approach to solving these real-life problems, one that can consistently lead you to effective and satisfying solutions.”

“Being a critic is easy; getting stuff done is the real challenge.”

“Stopping to think can be just as important as taking action.”

“The better you get at understanding the symptoms and identifying the root causes, the better you will get at developing effective solutions.”

“The more specific the goal is, the more specific the action plan will be.”

“Problem solving is easy when you know how to set a clear goal, figure out how to reach it, and follow through while reviewing your progress and making changes to your plan as necessary.”

“Spend less time worrying about things and more time thinking about actions you can take to get closer to your goals, then actually take action.”

Click here to download the Problem Solving 101 infographic & summary

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