Recommended Reading – The McKinsey Approach to Problem Solving

As often happens for me, while researching one thing on the internet I came across something else so interesting I stopped what I was originally doing in order to take in more about the new thing I came across. In this case, I was looking into the technique of “Issue Trees” (this will probably be one of the next few wiki pages) and came across a 2007 McKinsey Staff Paper titled “The McKinsey Approach to Problem Solving“.

In those 27 pages I found not some dry discussion of problem solving techniques, but rather some of the best and most concise information on what a Business Analyst should be doing (IMO) that I have ever come across. They might as well have titled the paper, “Business Analyst Work Process – First, Understand the Problem”. The paper includes not just a solid overview and process for defining, analyzing, and solving business problems; but some detailed work artifacts, techniques, and suggestions as well.

I can’t recommend you read this paper enough, and believe that every person working as a Business Analyst (whether that is your title or not) should read it. To entice you to do that a bit, I am going to include some select quotes below:

“Good problems solvers take time, before doing anything else, to establish a precise, comprehensive, well-articulated definition of the real problem that needs to be solved, and to ensure that this definition is understood and agreed upon by all the appropriate people at the client by all team members.”

“More and more, however, a purely analytical solution is not enough: Seizing the opportunity may require building organizational capabilities or transforming an organization’s mindset. ”

“Beware of falling into the trap, sometimes created by our choice of language, of focusing on a client’s problems. Distinctive problem solving comes from an expansive rather than a reductive mindset.”

“Any solution that is not borne out by quantitative facts immediately bears a heavy burden of proof.”

“No matter how skilled, knowledgeable, or experienced you are, you will never create the most distinctive solution on your own.”

In discussing how problem solving is a group activity and McKinsey’s Obligation to Dissent. “…, if you don’t agree with something, it is your obligation to present your dissenting view, and the obligation of others to listen to it. You should, of course, support your dissenting position with logic and facts that prove it is worthy of investigation. But never forget that you may be the best person, and sometimes the only person, to see a weakness or opportunity.” (emphasis mine)

“In the end, all our work boils down to change and how to help clients achieve it.”


In my opinion, that final quote may as well be a job description for Business Analysts.  🙂


End Note: There are several references in the paper to “Storylines” and “Dot-Dash”, here is a link to a blog post that explains what they are:

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