Martin Scheepbouwer has worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, as CFO for the Dutch operations of eBay and led Southern European activities for Schibsted ASA. He has just co-authored Thinking Backwards: The Art of Problem Solving In Business and explains what the book offers strategists.
What made you decide to write the book?
We were frustrated with the way we saw companies solve their challenges and make decisions. Every day I was being asked to say yes or no to an idea, and I found myself constantly saying ‘I don’t know, it depends what you want to achieve’. We tried to influence the people around us to help them make better decisions and we thought we could influence more people with the book
What is wrong with the way people approach problem-solving?
It’s deeply engrained from our school days that when we are faced with a problem we dissect it, and focus on how we got to this point. However, this doesn’t get us any closer to a solution. In this book we are trying to persuade people to drop that approach for a change and look instead at where they want to be.
What is the central idea?
When faced with difficult challenges companies and people should not get bogged down by analysis of why they have a problem and instead focus on their ambitions for where they want to move to. It’s a much more inspirational and thoughtful problem-solving process, and you can quickly shift to get people aligned behind your ambition and generating the solutions to get there.
How does it work in practice?
Say, for example, if you see a website lose a lot of traffic to a competitor you could spend lots of time discussing why it is happening, or you could move straight to tackling the problem. Ask yourself where you want to be. If you want to be market leader, you need to take quick action, perhaps making improvements to the site. If you want to be market leader very quickly you need to take more dramatic actions than if you are prepared to build over a number of years. Once you know where you want to go, you know what you need to do to get there.
How can people work through the process?
There are five steps: move from focusing on the problem to considering the ambition, outline conceptually how you want to get there, underpin this with analysis, consider the inevitable trade-offs in the process and ensure the main stakeholders underwrite your solution.
What would you suggest strategists take away from this book?
Problem solving is an art, not a science. Our approach is not black and white. Even if you take elements away from it and apply them you can improve problem solving a great deal. You don’t need to wait for a strategic planning session to experiment with our approach. Try it now and you’ll see the difference.