5 Popular Problem-solving Approaches and the Thinking that Powers Them


The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Good Team, Bad Team: Lead People to Go After Big Challenges, Not Each Other, written by FourSight partners, Sarah Thurber and Blair Miller

When our son got his first corporate job, he discovered the workplace was full of competing problem solving processes (e.g. design thinking, agile, etc.). His knowledge of FourSight helped him understand the differences, but most people find them confusing, he said. “You should really publish an article and help make sense of them all." 

So, we did. Here it is.
Given the increase in demand for complex problem solving, it’s no surprise that a parade of problem solving methods have recently marched into the world of business. Different groups, like designers, coders, and engineers, all have their own. You may have heard of design thinking, agile, Lean Six Sigma, or Google Sprints. They are all smart ways help people go from problem to solution. Each uses different language, stages, and tools to get the job done, but they share one unifying factor. (You’re going to like this.) If you drill down, you find they are all powered by the same four types of thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement. Sound familiar? The four types of thinking measured in the "FourSight Thinking Profile" are the four types of thinking that power every process under the sun.

The reason it was easy for our son to understand the differences is because he had the decoder ring: FourSight. When you understand thinking preferences, you understand how people are going to engage in whatever process you throw at them.

Here are five popular problem-solving methods. Each is tailor-made for the work it supports. Before you adopt one, just be sure it’s a fit for the work you do. 

Design thinking is a creative problem solving process that puts the end-user at the center of every stage. So, designers who want to build a better mousetrap don’t just study mousetraps, they study homeowners trying to get rid of mice. They take time to observe the behaviors and frustrations of the people who will ultimately use the product or service in order to clarify what a “better mousetrap” truly needs to be. Then they come up with an idea, informed by customer data. Before they mass produce the idea, they prototype it and ask for user feedback to get it right. The process is iterative, not linear, and is centered on improving through feedback and data. Design thinking was popularized by the IDEO design company and the Stanford University d.school, who have spread its teachings far beyond the design world. Today people use design thinking in all kinds of endeavors to clarify customer needs and get customer feedback early and often in the problem solving process. 

Outcome: A tested prototype of a product or service that truly meets a user need
Thinking skills emphasized: Clarify + Develop
Primary users: Those designing a product or service

Lean Six Sigma is actually a mashup of two different problem-solving processes (Lean and Six Sigma) which work together to improve quality, safety, and efficiency. Lean focuses on eliminating waste and streamlining processes. Think of Henry Ford creating an assembly line to produce the Model T—same car, same color—in record time. He achieved maximum flow but no variety. In Japan, engineers at Toyota figured out how to achieve both flow and variety. They are credited with the beginnings of modern Lean Manufacturing. These days, Lean is used to streamline all kinds of things, from loading cruise ships to staging emergency rooms for maximum efficiency. Six Sigma, by contrast, focuses on reducing defects to improve overall quality in the manufacturing process. The combined Lean Six Sigma approach removes statistically significant variations through process improvements and leads to greater efficiency and improved quality control. It makes small improvements that can add up to big wins.

Outcome: System improvements that reduce waste and increase quality 
Thinking skills: Clarify + Develop
Primary users: People in operations and process control

Agile is a project management framework that is iterative in nature. It’s technically not a problem-solving process. It’s a set of principles and values that help teams collaborate with a bias for action. Agile originated in the software development space, where innovators were frustrated at the painfully slow method of product rollout. The so-called waterfall method was so bogged down by documentation and planning that it neglected to check in with customers until after the product hit the market. Agile, by contrast, is light on its feet. Scrum is the methodology it often uses to manage projects, encouraging people to self-organize into Scrum teams overseen by a Scrum Master who ensures that everything is running smoothly. Agile tries to bring Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) to market to help the product iterate, improve, and find its market fit. 

Outcome: Products that iterate to find their market fit
Thinking skills: Develop + Implement
Primary users: Software developers and other product creators

Sprints are time-boxed problem-solving exercises with a specific outcome in mind. They come in many shapes and sizes. The Google Design Sprint, popularized by Jake Knapp’s best-selling book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, is a 5-day facilitated session that allows a team to bring a concept from idea to prototype, and even do customer testing. The team walks away with a validated idea for a product or service. The Design Sprint was popularized by Google Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of Alphabet, which works with tech companies in growth stage. Agile sprints are an entirely different animal. Agile sprints are used by scrum teams to tackle a small portion of a larger project. An agile sprint generally lasts between one and four weeks. 

Outcome: A working prototype to test with users 
Thinking skills: Ideate + Develop
Primary users: Teams launching new projects

FourSight is a thinking system that combines the four types of thinking necessary to solve any complex problem (clarify, ideate, develop, and implement) into a four-stage problem solving process and teaches people to understand their thinking preferences so they collaborate and solve challenges more effectively. Because of its simplicity and ease of use, some consider FourSight to be the Swiss Army knife of problem-solving processes. It is handy for most applications, but specialized for none. FourSight often serves as a common language for people to understand each other, align, and co-create solutions and is used for everyday problem solving as well as complex projects and challenges.  

FourSight outcome: A solution that includes all four types of thinking 
Thinking skills: Clarify + Ideate + Develop + Implement
Primary users: Leaders, teams, and facilitators who need a common language to solve complex problems
Your team may already use one of these processes or have your own. If it’s working, keep it up. Ideally, you’re using a process model that’s tailor-made for the type of problems you solve.

Special thanks to Sophie Tversky who contributed to the research for this piece.

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Sarah Thurber

Sarah is managing partner at FourSight and the author of The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker, Creativity Unbound, and Facilitation: A Door to Creative Leadership. Her work helps teams and leaders think creatively, work collaboratively and achieve innovative results.