Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Over the first half of 2022 a small group of us have been working on a conundrum: what process can we use to synthesise ideas?

We observe that this is a huge challenge for people when communicating and solving problems that storylines and issue trees help solve.

 However, in making full use of them we need more.

 So, we resolved to meet monthly, use the problem-solving tools discussed in the Clarity in Problem Solving course as a process map and work on it.

 This is the third discussion in that series which might start to be useful for those outside the sessions themselves. Do let us know if you would like to join the working group.

Why not to use tables alone when recommending which option to use

Why not to use tables alone when recommending which option to use

When I heard that NASA spent millions of dollars trying to find a ball point pen that would withstand the challenges of space I didn't query it too much.

Until I heard that the Russians went with a pencil, that is.

What's wrong here?

While not being present in either decision-making process, it highlights the value of thinking hard before proceeding.

It might also point to the value of pushing ourselves to think through options, which was the topic of a client discussion this week.

We observed that providing a table with ticks and crosses to discuss a series of options is, although common, inadequate. It requires the audience to interpret the table rather than you sharing your insights about what it means.

So, this week I offer a framework to help you develop and chunk your criteria so you can avoid leaving your insights ‘on the table', if you'll pardon my pun.

I offer three steps to employ this idea:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the framework
  2. Think about how to use it
  3. Refer to an example.

Familiarise yourself with the framework. Here are the four considerations that I think need to be canvassed when evaluating options for solving problems:

Strategy – Does this option help us deliver against our strategy? If so, how? If not, why not?

Return – Does this option help us deliver a strong return? ‘Return' might be considered many ways. It might be purely a financial measure, or alternatively consider softer issues such as social or environmental returns.

Practicality – Is this option easy, or perhaps even possible, for us to implement?

Risks – Does this option raise risks that will be hard for us to mitigate against? Or not?


Think about how to use it. As with all frameworks, we can use them to generate and to evaluate sets of ideas by helping us identify and fill gaps in our thinking.

Frameworks such as this stimulate us to ask whether we have covered all relevant issues, and whether we have done so well or not.

It is then up to us to measure our options against each criteria, draw out what this means for our decision making and make appropriate recommendations.

The framework helps you prioritise each of your criteria so you can calibrate your tradeoffs more effectively.

Refer to an example. This is a set of criteria for evaluating a set of options relating to a case study, which we explored in a program MasterClass some time ago.

The class focused around options for solving a disagreement about the best way to run races close to the daylight savings changeover when days are short.

Note how I have grouped the different criteria that emerged from the the discussion about the options.

In doing so, the tradeoffs become apparent given the first and third options have the same number of ticks and crosses each.

This then leads us to make a tradeoff between return and strategy: which one is more important?

That way we can decide which option is better. 


I hope that helps. More next week.


PS – this follows on neatly from last week's email about pros and cons (click here to read the post). 

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

I had a fabulous question this week: where do we fit ‘pros' and ‘cons' in our storyline?

That is a ‘ripper' of a question.

My answer is this: lists of pros and cons don't belong in your communication, they help you think through that message. 

Let me explain.

If we provide lists of pros and cons for an idea we are providing information rather than insight. This matters, because we are asking our audience to do the thinking work for us. Let me illustrate with an example

Pros of skiing in Whistler in January

  • Skiing is fun
  • There are lots of things to do when not skiing
  • Terrain is amazingly diverse
  • Resort is huge, with lots of different areas to ski
  • Altitude is relatively low, so altitude sickness and asthma risk are lower than other resorts
  • Easy access from Sydney (single flight + short bus ride)

Cons of skiing in Whistler in January

  • Snow can be patchy, especially early in January
  • Skiing is expensive
  • Snow can be ‘heavy' compared with other resorts
  • It rains more here than some other resorts
  • Costs have risen since Vail took over the mountain

If, instead, we do the thinking for our audience, we will deliver insights that emerge from our own analysis of that pros and cons list. In comparison, here is what that might look like:

Despite Whistler's snow not being as light and fluffy as at some other resorts, it is the best place for us to ski this coming January.

  • The skiing is incredible (diverse, expansive, sometimes fluffy snow)
  • The village is fun when off the slopes
  • It is easy to access from Sydney (single flight + short bus ride)
  • Costs are manageable (know lots of people to ski with so don't need lessons, can invite friends over to eat in, etc)
  • The low altitude means vulnerable family members stay healthy

If your audience is explicitly asking for pros and cons lists, pop them in the appendix. Focus your main communication around your interpretation of that list instead.

I hope that helps.

Kind regards,

PS – For those of you in our recent group session who were asking about the recording in the portal about ‘taking a great brief', click here to access. 

How to know when you are stuck in the weeds

How to know when you are stuck in the weeds

Have you ever wondered how to know when it's time to ‘pop up' out of the weeds so you can see the big picture?

A number of people in the program have asked this question and a December working session focused on the issue in a way that is useful to all of you.

The key takeaway was that if you find yourself going really deep on one section of an issue before clarifying the top level you need to come back up.

This is particularly so when building issue and hypothesis trees when problem solving. There is a tendency to go and ‘do the analysis' to answer a question while the ideas are fresh and run the risk that we have spent significant energy doing the wrong analysis.

We also risk wasting effort if we dive in too deep when preparing our communication. We aren't always clear on what the messaging should be in a section of a story before we know what the high-level story is like for the whole thing.

This means that we can prepare pages in packs and papers that end up being redundant because we ‘chased a rabbit' down a hole.

So, here are some ideas to help you ‘stay out of the rabbit warrens'

  1. Take a look at the recording. Click here to access.
    1. The topic is simple and interesting (addressing an employee shortage in a US County) and illustrates very clearly the problem.
    2. It offers a chance to refresh or perhaps dig into the problem solving concepts in the Clarity in Problem Solving course.
  2. Stick to building your one-page storylines before building your papers or packs
  3. Go a step further and ‘hack' the high-level storylines before you get to building your one-pager. There is room for this in the storyline planner, and plenty of examples in the recorded sessions of this strategy at work.

I hope that helps and look forward to checking in again next week.

Kind regards,

PS – Don't forget to get a copy of Bill's Book, Building a Winning Career so you can contribute to the discussion during the mid January and early February working sessions.

Exploring bottom up and top down thinking when problem solving

This was a terrific session where we explored a concrete example that we can all relate to.

We dug into Ravi’s housing shortage challenge again to explore how we might use hypothesis trees, issue trees or design thinking to help.

We were reminded of a number of things during this session:

  1. Understanding the problem is vital in order to effectively solve it.
  2. MECE is a fantastic tool to use while problem-solving as it pushes us to look at the problem from multiple angles.
  3. Pulling back intermittently to check that you aren't ‘too deep into the detail' can help keep your problem-solving session on track.

Our notes for this session are available for download underneath the recording.

Keywords: Clarity in Problem Solving, State the Problem, Issue Tree