How to solve any problem and make a decision in five minutes

So, you’ve got a big decision to make or a problem to solve.

Are you endlessly dithering over your options, paralysed by the fear of making a misstep?

We’ve got two bits of good news for you.

One: you’re certainly not alone in struggling with indecision. We’ve all been there.

Two: there might be a solution.

Professor Arnaud Chevallier and Professor Albrecht Enders are expert problem-solvers and decision-makers, both working at The International Institute For Management Development.

Together, they’ve written Solvable, a new book that aims to equip us with the skills to solve any issue that may cross our paths.

And they reckon that you can make any decision or navigate any problem with speed – in five minutes, in fact.

They propose a few different ‘systems’ of thinking that can help, which we outline ahead…

Subsconscious decision-making for everyday problems

You probably aren’t aware of it, but you’ve already solved a bunch of problems today.

These are those little decisions we make without thinking; from what to eat for breakfast to whether to take the lift or go up the stairs.

For most of these little decisions, we use heuristics – mental shortcuts that rely on general ‘rules’ or past experiences to inform our current thoughts – so we don’t even recognise the issues at hand as problems.

‘We use heuristics to fulfil basic needs,’ says Professor Arnaud Chevallier. ‘If you are thirsty, you might just fill up a glass from the kitchen tap. If you have an important client meeting that day, you might automatically reach for a favourite dress that fits well and you feel confident in. If you feel chilly, you instinctively turn up the heating.’

‘But you could go to a shop to buy a can of lemonade to quench your thirst; wear smart trousers to the meeting; pull on a cardigan to beat the chill.

‘In fact, there are lots of solutions to these problems – but these trivial problems are so numerous that considering every possible solution every time we encounter a day-to-day choice would prevent us from achieving anything.’

For decisions that don’t really matter much in the long run – what to order at a restaurant, which lipstick to wear, which mug to use for your tea – it makes sense to shift to this sort of subconscious problem-solving: you just take steps and make choices without really considering other options.

But sometimes, these small decisions that don’t really matter feel tricky, too. If you’re a naturally indecisive person, the decision of what show to watch or what coffee to order can feel giant.

For these times, we reckon a trick to tune into your gut is the best call…

The coin flip trick

For little decisions, get a coin and assign option A as heads, the option B as tails. Flip the coin, but before looking to see which way it’s landed, ask yourself: what are you hoping it says?

If you’re secretly hoping it’s heads – perhaps so much so that if it were tails, you’d do a best of three – go for that option. It’s clearly what you really want.

If you don’t have any strong secret leaning, then do what the coin says – this tells you that both options are fine.

Make the decision by counting down from five then taking the action, vowing that you won’t continue to dither or consider what could have been if you’d gone the other way.

Framing for bigger problems

Okay, so that’s how you speed up decision-making when it comes to smaller bits – what about the big, life-course-altering, issues?

The professors say you can sort these out in five minutes, too.

But don’t feel rubbish if you struggle to make these calls.

‘When my colleague Professor Albrecht Enders and I quizzed senior executives about how they approached daily dilemmas, we discovered that many problems can be solved in five minutes if you know how to frame them properly,’ says Professor Chevallier.

‘Yet even the most senior business leaders struggle to find simple solutions to complex problems. In fact, history is littered with examples of great leaders toiling over problems.’

The duo say that the key to solving these problems is not about the actual making of decisions – the solution comes before that; in the way we frame these decisions.

They give an example of Louis XIV’s dream of having 2,400 water fountains at his palace in Versailles.

King Louis wanted to use the fountains to impress foreign guests and showcase the glitz and glamour of the French court. But delivering water to Versailles was extraordinarily difficult because Versailles sits on a hill: all the potential sources of water are below it.

Louis’ engineers framed the problem like this: How can we deliver sufficient water to Versailles? In seeking a solution to this question, they tried everything: pumps, windmills, reservoirs, rerouting rivers, aqueducts.

Their efforts took 28 years, required 1,800 workers and cost £650million in today’s prices. Yet after all this they remained unable to deliver enough water to Versailles to supply all the fountains.

Professor Enders says: ‘Remember how the engineers initially framed this gigantic problem: “How can we deliver sufficient water to Versailles?” That framing led to more than a quarter-century of toil and misery.

‘Had they framed it differently, “How can we deliver enough water to Versailles to keep the king happy?” they might have arrived at the eventual solution in a few minutes without the backbreaking labour and eyewatering cost.’

The fountaineers eventually solved the 28-year-long problem in five minutes – by whistling.

Instead of operating all 2,400 fountains continuously, they simply whistled when the king was approaching a fountain. Upon hearing his colleague’s signal, the water operator would simply open the flow to the fountain, allowing the king to show its magnificence to his mesmerised foreign ambassador guests.

Once the royal party was out of sight, the flow to the fountain was cut off in favour of the next one.

You probably won’t have to come up against the same question of how to make thousands of water fountains work, we know, but you likely will come up against issues where you’re framing the big questions incorrectly.

What really matters about this problem? What’s the actual issue that needs solving, and what’s just background noise? Are you dithering over the ‘right’ option, or going for the option that’s best for you?

‘Our model reveals how to better frame problems so we can find simple solutions to complex problems,’ says Professor Enders. “The secret to framing problems is that every word matters.

‘Consider these frames:

  • How can I get a new job? vs How can I be happy in my career?
  • How can I afford this dream home? vs How do I provide a great home for my family?
  • How will I manage to drive this 400-mile journey in a day? vs How can I best travel to my intended destination?’

Professor Chevallier adds: ‘In business and daily life, we often start from poor premise, select inappropriate criteria, and frame our problems poorly.

‘Through better framing, we can greatly increase our ability to solve even complex problems efficiently.’

What we can learn from this: next time you’re struggle to tackle a big problem or make a big decision, take a step back and try framing it in a different way.

Once you’re asking the right question, the right answer will become obvious.

Professor Albrecht Enders is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at The International Institute for Management Development (IMD). Professor Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at IMD. Their new book Solvable is out now.

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