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  • An overview of strategic thinking in complex problem solving
  • Frame the problem
  • Identify potential root causes
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Arnaud Chevallier

Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving 1st Edition

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  • ISBN-10 0190463902
  • ISBN-13 978-0190463908
  • Edition 1st
  • Publisher Oxford University Press
  • Publication date August 3, 2016
  • Language English
  • Dimensions 9.9 x 0.6 x 6.9 inches
  • Print length 304 pages
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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Oxford University Press; 1st edition (August 3, 2016)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0190463902
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0190463908
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.19 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 9.9 x 0.6 x 6.9 inches
  • #228 in Business Decision Making
  • #256 in Systems & Planning
  • #421 in Decision-Making & Problem Solving

About the author

Arnaud chevallier.

Arnaud Chevallier helps executives solve complex problems and make better decisions under uncertainty. His research, teaching and consulting draw on empirical findings from diverse disciplines to provide concrete tools that prepare executives to manage the strategic challenges they face in today’s dynamic global marketplace.

Effective problem solvers are T-shaped – they are both generalists and specialists, combining depth and breadth of knowledge. Although traditional education and training cultivate specialist skills, they pay much less attention to the acquisition of generalist skills, including strategic thinking. Executives can use Chevallier’s tools to improve on the breadth dimension.

His initial 2016 book Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving, published by Oxford University Press, is now followed by his latest title, Solvable: A Simple Solution to Complex Problems, co-authored with Albrecht Enders. This book synthesizes the strategic thinking needed for complex problem solving into a simple three-step process: frame, explore, decide. It also shows practitioners how to follow these steps using highly applicable, concrete tools.

He has helped numerous organizations to identify breakthrough solutions to complex problems, including Shell, SAP, Lenovo, Cisco, Novo Nordisk, Statkraft, and the United Nations. He recently helped the International Committee of the Red Cross identify innovative funding sources and assisted Gavi the Vaccine Alliance in its drive to have greater impact. He also helped Swiss company Agathon to make decisions under high uncertainty during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and supported Tetra Pak in improving its decision-making processes through the optimal engagement of stakeholders.

At IMD he is Director of the Global Management Foundations (GMF) program and the Master of Science in Sustainable Management and Technology (SMT) program offered jointly by IMD, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and the University of Lausanne. He is also Co-Director of IMD’s Complex Problem Solving (CPS) program.

Before joining IMD in 2018, Chevallier served as Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he taught strategic thinking in the engineering school. He was previously graduate dean of the University of Monterrey in Mexico, teaching engineering and business. He trained in mechanical engineering and his PhD from Rice focused on nonlinear stochastic mechanics. He then worked in Accenture’s strategy and business architecture division before joining academia.

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How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills

  • Nina A. Bowman

strategic thinking in complex problem solving summary

Don’t be shy about bringing your ideas to the table.

Developing your strategic thinking skills isn’t enough to get you promoted. In order to advance in your career, you need to demonstrate them. Leaders want to know what you think, and they view your worthiness for promotion through the lens of how ready you are to make bigger decisions. Ask yourself: “Do people know where I stand?” If not, what do you need to do to bring your perspective to the table? It’s also important to demonstrate that you can put new ideas into action. Take the initiative on new projects that show how your understanding extends beyond your current function.

We all know that developing strategic thinking skills is important , but many don’t realize how critical it is to your career advancement to show these skills to your boss and other senior leaders. Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.

strategic thinking in complex problem solving summary

  • NB Nina A. Bowman is a Managing Partner at Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Previously, she held various advisory and leadership roles in strategy. She is an executive coach and speaker on issues of strategic leadership, leadership presence, and interpersonal effectiveness. She is also a contributing author to the HBR Guide to Coaching Employees and HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically .

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4 Ways to Develop Your Strategic Thinking Skills

Business professionals using strategic thinking skills

  • 10 Sep 2020

Think back to the last time you participated in a strategic planning meeting for your organization. You were likely presented with a challenge to solve or goal to achieve.

Do you remember your contributions during that meeting? Did you offer compelling ideas and plot a course of action, or find it difficult to think strategically and develop a solution? Did you have a good idea, but struggle to communicate it in a logical way? Were you an active participant in the conversation, or did others helm it?

Strategic thinking skills are among the most highly sought-after management competencies. Why? Because employees capable of thinking critically, logically, and strategically can have a tremendous impact on a business’s trajectory.

If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, the good news is that, with the right mindset and practice, you can.

Here are four ways to improve your strategy skills , so the next time you’re involved in a strategic planning meeting, you can ensure your contributions are noticed.

Access your free e-book today.

What Are Strategic Thinking Skills?

Strategic thinking skills are any skills that enable you to use critical thinking to solve complex problems and plan for the future. These skills are essential to accomplish business objectives, overcome obstacles, and address challenges—particularly if they’re projected to take weeks, months, or even years to achieve.

Strategic thinking skills include:

  • Analytical skills: To ideate a strategy that helps your organization reach its objectives, you must be capable of analyzing a variety of inputs—from financial statements and KPIs , to market conditions, emerging business trends, and internal resource allocation. This initial analysis is crucial to creating a strategy that aligns with the current reality facing your organization.
  • Communication skills: Putting a strategy into place for your company, regardless of its size, requires solid communication skills . The ability to communicate complex ideas, collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, build consensus, and ensure everyone is aligned and working toward shared goals are all central to strategic thinking.
  • Problem-solving skills: Strategic planning is often used to solve problems or address challenges, such as missed financial targets, inefficient workflows, or an emerging competitor. Implementing a strategy that addresses the central challenge you face requires you to first understand the problem and its potential solutions. From there, you can craft a strategy that solves it.
  • Planning and management skills: Strategy isn’t just about thinking of a solution—it involves implementation, too. Once data has been analyzed, the problem is understood, and a solution has been identified, you need strong planning and management skills to bring everything together.

How to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills

1. ask strategic questions.

If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, one of the simplest things you can do is ask more strategic questions. Doing so allows you to exercise your planning skills, become adept at spotting opportunities, and develop a more strategic mindset you can leverage throughout your career.

According to the Harvard Business School Online course Disruptive Strategy , strategic questions can relate to a challenge, opportunity, or ambiguity you face in your current situation, whether personal or professional. They might, for instance, relate to launching a new business or product, beating a competitor, or structuring your organization for innovation.

It’s also important that your questions apply to your role and responsibilities so you can act on them.

Some examples of strategic questions you might ask include:

  • How can we strategically position ourselves to enter a new market?
  • What’s the direction for growth for each of our products or services?
  • Where will the organization's growth come from in the next five years, and how does it compare with where growth has historically come from?
  • How should the organization respond to the threat presented by potentially disruptive competitors ?

2. Observe and Reflect

In addition to asking strategic questions, you need to answer and address them skillfully. One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is to observe and reflect on your current situation, ensuring any strategy you conceive is grounded in facts.

For example, imagine that the business you work for has begun losing market share for one of its products among its traditional customers. At the same time, it’s gained market share from an entirely new customer base. It’s easy to assume why this might be happening, but doing so can lead you down the wrong path at a critical moment in your organization’s existence.

Instead of blindly following an assumption, gather as much information as possible to use when crafting your strategy. For example, this might include conducting user interviews with new customers to identify the different jobs they hire your product to perform.

Understanding why new customers are attracted to your product can enable you to tailor your marketing strategy and product development to better embrace their needs .

3. Consider Opposing Ideas

Once you’ve landed on a strategy that can help your organization reach its goals, question your assumptions, and put your hypothesis through rigorous testing. By doing so, you can ensure you’re not overlooking another possibility.

Playing devil’s advocate with your ideas can allow you to preemptively identify weaknesses in your argument, and equip you to defend your strategy when others ask questions. It can also help you sharpen the logic skills you need to communicate and execute your strategy.

To develop this skill, get in the habit of questioning yourself any time you’re about to make an assertion. Should you consider a different perspective? Is there another possibility you may have overlooked?

4. Embrace Formal Training

By practicing the methods described above, you can improve your strategic thinking skills at your own pace. However, there are other learning options you can pursue.

If you need to quickly ramp up your strategy skills—to address a pressing need your organization is facing, position yourself for a new role, or finally launch your own business—formal training might be your best option.

For example, by enrolling in the online course Disruptive Strategy , you can discover how to make innovation a reality for your organization. Over six weeks, you’ll learn about the jobs to be done framework and disruptive innovation theory, and build skills to identify and execute high-level strategy.

Which HBS Online Strategy Course is Right for You? | Download Your Free Flowchart

Cultivating a Strategic Mindset

Whether in the long- or short-term, a strategic mindset can be developed through self-exploration, critical questioning, and formal training.

The advantage of having a strategic mindset is learning how to think rather than what to think. Although you might not always have the right answers, strategic thinking skills can empower you to spot new opportunities, address emerging challenges, and plan for future success.

Are you looking to develop a strategic mindset? Explore our portfolio of online strategy courses and download the free flowchart to determine which is the best fit for you and your goals.

strategic thinking in complex problem solving summary

About the Author

Here are some books, websites, and papers that can help you improve your strategic thinking skills. For the most part, these references below are user friendly. If you want more specialized work, especially papers, please look at the end of each  post

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My  books  are now available. For a more graphical treatment, you may want to look at our slidedecks, available for download and purchase. 

strategic thinking in complex problem solving summary

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Third Party Resources

Problem solving in general

The scientific method is driving our approach to problem solving; the tools we're discussing on this site are only ways to make it easier to follow it. So invest in knowing it. Hugh Gauch has written the  best book on the scientific method  that I've seen.

Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky's  Judgement under Uncertainty  is eye-opening… and scary. We, humans, suffer from all sorts of biases so you should at least learn about them.

Atul Gawande's  The Checklist Manifesto  advocates for more structure in how we approach problems, even familiar ones. It's a quick and entertaining read too.

The National Research Council recently published  recommendations  for the intelligence community. Most of those are directly applicable to anyone interested in becoming a better problem solver.

The National Academies Press also has a NSF-funded report with a  chapter dedicated to solving problems in science and engineering .

George Pólya's  How to Solve it  is an excellent resource. Pólya looks at a general approach and more focused tactics to solving mathematical problems. Most of his material is directly applicable to all types of problems. This is a great book.

The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning  touches problem solving in various chapters. It approaches from the standpoint of psychology. It's a great resources, even though it does get technical.

Ken Watanabe’s  Problem Solving 101  is a good primer. Explaining problem solving to kids, ex-McKinsey consultant Watanabe does a great job at introducing the key concepts of the process.

There's a bunch of people out there telling you how to solve problems without strong evidence to support their claims.  Pfeffer and Sutton  make a compelling point for a more evidence-based approach to management.

I have a  couple of presentations  on the problem-solving approach discussed on this site. 

Framing the problem

You can trust designers to be good at problem framing, and IDEO is arguably one of the best design firms in the world. Its founders, Tom and David Kelley, have various  books on innovation , amongst other themes.

Bazerman and Moore's  Judgment in Managerial Decision Making  is simple, fun and insightful.

Barbara Minto’s  Pyramid principles  is a classic on using logic to improve our thinking and communication. Her techniques are endorsed by the entire consulting world.

The 5 Whys technique of the Six Sigma methodology has some similarities with developing  why  logic trees.

Richards Heuer and Randolph Pherson  have a good repository of techniques for solving complex problems. They apply to both the diagnosis and the solution identification phase.

The intelligence community uses  behavioral and social science tools  that can benefit all of us in solving complex problems.

Michael Alley's  The Craft of Scientific Presentations  offers great ideas to improve one's presenting skills. 

Exploring solutions

Innovating can be difficult. Roberta Ness's  Innovation Generation  can help you improve your skills.

Morgan Jones’  Thinker’s Toolkit  as a great section on testing hypotheses. Its section on identifying the right problem is also worth your time.

Groups are smarter than individuals according to  James Surowiecki  and  Scott Page . Both books are great.

Kenichi Ohmae’s  The Mind of the Strategist  is a classic on business strategy. Various of his sections are directly relevant to our themes, including determining the critical issue and using diagrams/trees.

Schwartz'  The Paradox of Choice  is good resource for understanding the concepts of  satisficing and optimizing , identifying where you. 

Bazerman and Neale's  Negotiating Rationally  is an excellent resource to become a better negotiator. Negotiation is critical, so you may want to look at other books such as  Thompson's ,  Fisher et al.'s ,  Raiffa's , and another one by  Raiffa .

Garr Reynolds has a blog,  Presentation Zen , about preparing and delivering presentations. He also has  a book  out with the same name.

Nancy Duarte's  slide:ology  has excellent ideas to make your slides more powerful.

Not to take away from Reynolds or Duarte—as presentations have various purposes—but everyone and their mother have an opinion of what makes a good slide design.  Michael Alley , at Penn State, is one of the only ones I know who actually has some data supporting his view. And, by the way, yes: you should  put your main idea in the tagline of your slide .

Dan Pink  talks a lot about the importance of design; the main point of  A Whole New Mind  is that analytical skills are not enough anymore, you also need to use the right side of your brain.

An anonymous poster has a  good presentation  on Slideshare on how to present.

iStockPhoto  has a bunch of royalty-free photos to help you enhance your presentations (most photos on this site are from there).

Gene Zelazny’s  Say it with Presentations  and  Say it with Charts  provide good tips to improve your presentations. Zelazny has been McKinsey's director of visual communications for a gazillion years (not to age him), so he knows a thing or two about how to communicate well with presentations.

TED Talks  is an amazing collection of current trend-setting intellectuals and artists. Each have 18 minutes (or less) to talk about their subjects. The talks are a good source of inspiration to improve our presentations.

Dale Carnegie's  How to Win Friends and Influence People  is a classic on human interactions. It's an easy read, with each chapter summarized in a short principle, and it's full of great ideas.

Covey's  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  is also a great resource for managing people.

Marshall Goldsmith's  What Got You Here Won't Get You There  is a great resource to identify the managerial pitfalls of executives and ensuring that you'll avoid them.

Getting to Yes  is a great guide to improve your negotiation skills.

Steven Sample's  Guide to the Contrarian Leadership  has many good ideas applicable to all stages of the problem-solving process.

If you think that leading change is tough, try doing it in a university. Bowen's  Reflections of a University President recounts some of his experiences at Princeton.

Access to world-class courses is getting easier than ever.  Coursera ,  EdX  and  are great resources to get to know more about specific subjects.

Problem solvers you may consider following

Ken Homa  teaches two courses in the MBA program at Georgetown: Strategic Business Analytics and Consulting Methods and Frameworks and Contexts. His blog is thought provoking.

Tim van Gelder  teaches at the University of Melbourne. Also, he leads  Austhink , a consultancy that helps with solving complex problems.

strategic thinking in complex problem solving summary

Arnaud Chevallier

Professor @ IMD

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Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

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  • Published: January 2016
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  1. Problem-Solving Strategies: Definition and 5 Techniques to Try

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  5. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving (Paperback)

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  1. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Abstract. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving provides a framework and practical tools to help the reader solve problems. In our personal and professional lives, we are required to solve problems that are not clearly defined and have moving and interdependent parts. Successful resolution requires us to be T-shaped, having both depth ...

  2. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    the beginning of each class, you will hand in a one-page summary of the reading addressing: -1- Your ... Strategic thinking in complex problem solving Page "3/"7. VERSION OF 04-19-2018 Additional reading (Singer, Nielsen et al. 2012); (Polya 2008); (Minto 2009);; ...

  3. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    His initial 2016 book Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving, published by Oxford University Press, is now followed by his latest title, Solvable: A Simple Solution to Complex Problems, co-authored with Albrecht Enders. This book synthesizes the strategic thinking needed for complex problem solving into a simple three-step process: frame ...

  4. (PDF) Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving provides a general framework and practical tools to help you do so. The book provides practical ways to develop problem solving skills, including ...

  5. Strategic thinking in complex problem solving.

    Strategic Thinking in Complex Prob/em Solving provides a general framework and the necessary tools to help you do so. Based on his groundbreaking course at Rice University, engineer and former strategy consultant Arnaud Chevallier provides practical ways to develop problem solving skills, such as investigating complex questions with issue maps ...

  6. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Business, Philosophy. 2022. TLDR. This work provides an approach for problem formulation and theorizing inspired by Oliver Williamson and two of his accomplished advisees, and synthesizes five principles and dialectics into five protocols to enable canonical problem formulation directed at exploring theoretical frontiers. Expand. 1. PDF.

  7. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving is a tool kit that integrates knowledge based on both theoretical and empirical evidence from many disciplines, and explains it in accessible terms. As the book guides you through the various stages of solving complex problems, it also provides useful templates so that you can easily apply these ...

  8. Strategic thinking in complex problem solving

    Summary 'Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving' provides readers with practical tools to help them solve complex problems. Based on theoretical and empirical evidence from many disciplines, this work breaks down the resolution process into four easy-to-follow steps, and provides concrete guidelines to help anyone who is confronted with an unfamiliar, challenging problem requiring ...

  9. Strategic thinking in complex problem solving

    An overview of strategic thinking in complex problem solving. Frame the problem. Identify potential root causes. Determine the actual cause (s) Identify potential solutions. Select a solution. Sell the solution-- communicate effectively. Implement and monitor the solution. Dealing with complications and wrap up.

  10. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving is a tool kit that integrates knowledge based on both theoretical and empirical evidence from many disciplines, and explains it in accessible terms. As the book guides you through the various stages of solving complex problems, it also provides useful templates so that you can easily apply these ...

  11. PDF Strategic Thinking for Complex Problem Solving

    This course shows how to become a better strategic thinker, preparing you to solve complex, ill-defined, non-immediate (CIDNI) problems. It is project based, so each of you bring a problem that becomes your project for the course and a case study for the group. You'll apply the concepts covered in the course to your problem, structuring its ...

  12. An Overview of Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Summary: CIDNI problem solving in a nutshell 5. Summary: CIDNI problem solving in a nutshell. Notes Notes. Notes. Notes. 2 Frame the Problem ... "An overview of strategic thinking in complex problem solving," gives a general description of the book and introduces the case study that is used in each chapter to exemplify how the tools apply ...

  13. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving is a tool kit that integrates knowledge based on both theoretical and empirical evidence from many disciplines, and explains it in accessible terms. As the book guides you through the various stages of solving complex problems, it also provides useful templates so that you can easily apply these ...

  14. Strategic thinking in complex problem solving

    An overview of strategic thinking in complex problem solving -- Frame the problem -- Identify potential root causes -- Determine the actual cause(s) -- Identify potential solutions -- Select a solution -- Sell the solution -- communicate effectively -- Implement and monitor the solution -- Dealing with complications and wrap up ...

  15. How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills

    Buy Copies. Summary. Developing your strategic thinking skills isn't enough to get you promoted. In order to advance in your career, you need to demonstrate them. Leaders want to know what you ...

  16. Frame the Problem

    Abstract. The second chapter, "Frame the problem," provides tools to understand and define the problem in a constructive way. It proposes ways to identify and focus on the critical issue, as opposed to one of its symptoms or a real-but-less-important issue. The chapter also demonstrates how to describe the resolution process and capture ...

  17. How to strategize your way out of complex problems

    His research, teaching, and consulting on strategic thinking bridges disciplines to provide concrete tools to improve decision making and corporate problem solving. He has written two books: Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving and Solvable: A Simple Solution to Complex Problems, co-authored with Albrecht Enders.

  18. Strategy as Problem-Solving

    Under strategy as problem-solving, the strategist's primary contribution is the diagnosis of complex problems. Diagnosis attempts to frame, map, and probe a complex problem to identify the level of order, dispositions, and pathways for potential resolution. The word itself emerges from the Greek diagignōskein, meaning "to distinguish ...

  19. 4 Ways to Develop Your Strategic Thinking Skills

    The ability to communicate complex ideas, collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, build consensus, and ensure everyone is aligned and working toward shared goals are all central to strategic thinking. Problem-solving skills: Strategic planning is often used to solve problems or address challenges, such as missed financial targets ...

  20. Select a Solution

    Abstract. The sixth chapter, "Select a solution," concludes the search for a solution by explaining how to test various options and select one or more. The chapter shows how to conduct the test by first doing an initial screening to eliminate options that are not suitable. Readers learn how to gather evidence to analyze the remaining ...

  21. Powerful Problem Solving

    The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning touches problem solving in various chapters. It approaches from the standpoint of psychology. It's a great resources, even though it does get technical. Ken Watanabe's Problem Solving 101 is a good primer. Explaining problem solving to kids, ex-McKinsey consultant Watanabe does a great job at ...

  22. Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving

    1 An Overview of Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving Notes. Notes. 2 Frame the Problem Notes. Notes. 3 Identify Potential Root Causes Notes. Notes. 4 Determine the Actual Cause(s) ...