Podcast notes: HBR IdeaCast — Interview with Corey Phelps — The Right Way to Solve Complex Business Problems

Xavier Briand
Jan 29 · 3 min read

In Cracked it!: How to solve big problems and sell solutions like top strategy consultants, Corey Phelps starts with:

There’s this belief that because we do [problem-solving] so frequently — and especially for senior leaders, they have a lot of experience, they solve problems for a living — and as such we would expect them to be quite good at it. And I think […] they’re not. They don’t solve problems well because they fall prey […] to the cognitive biases and the pitfalls of problem-solving.

Pitfalls of problem-solving

Jumping to solution

Time pressure + efficiency and productivity = incentive to quickly implement a solution.

In is book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Danny Kahneman elaborates that our minds are hardwired to think fast (system 1 thinking), to jump to solution. The solution is to take a step back a take time to “think slow” (system 2 thinking), to take a more deliberate and structured approach.

Expertise trap or Law of Instruments

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

— Abraham Maslow

Reasoning by analogy

Or applying past experience on a different context (ie. surface-level analogy). Corey Phelps tells the story of Ron Johnson when he became CEO of JC Penney. Assumptions and lack of pilot projects led to “the worst quarter in retail history”.

Corey Phelps’ four S method

State the problem

Defining what the problem is that you are attempting to solve:

  • What’s the trouble?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What would define success?
  • What are the constraints that we would be operating under?
  • Who owns the problem?
  • And then who are the key stakeholders?

Structure the problem

Identify what are the potential causes of that problem.

Structure the problem for analysis to identify what are the underlying causes that are contributing to it.

Generate solutions

The easy one. Though, be aware of cultural tendency to self-censor.


It’s rare in any organization that someone or the group of people that come up with the solution actually have the power and the resources to implement it, so that means they’re going to have to persuade other people to buy into it and want to help.

≠ with design thinking

[Strategy consultants] would say “first we’re going to identify all the possible problems, all the possible causes I should say, of this problem. We’re going to figure out which ones are operating and we’re going to use that to come up with a solution.”

Then you’ve got problems that you have no idea what the causes are. You’re in a world of unknown unknowns […] you don’t have a theory. So the question is, how do you begin? Well, this is where design thinking can be quite valuable

My journey into Cybersecurity

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Xavier Briand

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50% solution finder at @ExperiencePoint / 50% endurance cyclist. Will train for food and burn it for adventures.

My journey into Cybersecurity

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