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How to strategize your way out of complex problems

10 June 2022 • by Arnaud Chevallier, Albrecht Enders, Philip Rosenzweig in Library

In Solvable, Arnaud Chevallier and Albrecht Enders have developed a three-step process for complex problem solving: frame, explore and decide....

In Solvable, Arnaud Chevallier and Albrecht Enders have developed a three-step process for complex problem solving: frame, explore and decide.

We have worked with thousands of executives and while their problems are all unique, the underlying struggles they face are similar. We want to help managers do two things: make better decisions in the face of uncertainty and learn to make difficult choices while maintaining the support of the people they are leading. Strong intuition is an asset to leaders but can be disastrous, if you are counting on it as your main method of solving complex problems; instead, you need a framework. Although the problem you are trying to solve may be extremely complex, the process to find a solution is straightforward. We have developed a three-step process for complex problem solving: frame, explore and decide.


Framing the problem consists of clearly specifying what it is and what it isn’t. Essentially, you are answering the question, what’s my problem? Although this seems straightforward on its face, people often take it for granted, acting too fast. It is important to challenge yourself to check whether you are focusing on the actual pain rather than a symptom or a different problem altogether. When we challenge our assumptions of what the problem is with critical thinking we have found that nearly all executives we work with including ourselves find that the frame changes from our initial thinking.

To frame the problem effectively you need to include everything that is important and exclude everything else, which is not always easy. Too much detail at this stage can be distracting, so remember when it comes to framing, break down your issues to make them as simple as possible. Less is more.

Remember to engage different stakeholders at this stage. Often people just discuss a problem with the top team or their project team, but engaging people with different backgrounds and points of view will help you realize if you may be mistaking the underlying issue at hand. Frames are like good stories, and if you are framing the problem well, your audience or stakeholders will be fully engaged.


Exploring consists of giving ourselves license to look beyond the obvious solutions to discover innovative ones. It also helps us understand what we and our stakeholders value in a solution. In this stage, you are answering how may I solve my problem? There may be many different choices of solutions; part of the process is to discover or create these innovative solutions, irrespective or their desirability or feasibility.

At this stage we try to understand the full breadth of potential solutions. Mapping them out is a good way to stop ourselves from jumping ahead too quickly.


Deciding consists of choosing the solution that best serves our needs. In this phase, we answer, how should I solve my problem? It is important to emphasize here that complex problems do not have one right answer, only better or worse ones. You are solving for trade-offs that are the most acceptable to you and your stakeholders. What you decide will be the best solution for your team, but probably not the best solution for each individual person in the team. If you have involved people in this process and can explain that you considered their solutions, but didn’t choose them for specific reasons, they will generally perceive the process as fair and be more likely to get on board with the chosen solution.

Deciding can be aided by using a simple decision matrix. (You can use the tool at to help you structure your problem-solving process.)

Don’t jump to solutions

When we first understand we have a problem, there is a tendency to immediately ask “how should I solve this?” Before you get there, it is important to work through each step of the process.

We have been collecting data on where most executives fall short in the problem-solving process and found that there are two traps most executives fall into: either focusing on a suboptimal problem (this would be addressed in the framing process) or not accounting for stakeholders’ views (this could be addressed in either the framing or exploring step or both).

A fairytale solution

Think of your problem like a classic fairytale with a hero, a treasure, a dragon and a quest. The hero is the main protagonist, typically a person or a group. The treasure is the hero’s aspiration, what they hope to achieve or get – increased profits, for instance. The dragon is the obstacle standing between the hero and the treasure, such as increased costs or supply chain issues. The quest brings these three key elements in a summary statement of the problem of the form, “How should [the hero] get [the treasure], given [the dragon]?” Answering that quest gives you your strategy; that is, your plan of action to solve your problem.

Not a linear process

Although we have laid this out in a three-step process it is important to recognize that it is an iterative process, not linear. As you work your way through each step you may discover new information. Consider this in your timing. If you only have two weeks, don’t spend one week framing and the next week exploring and deciding. Better to frame for three days, and explore and decide for three more, which gives you the time to iterate a few more times, integrating the new evidence that you uncovered in the previous iterations.

To get more useful tools or go deeper on each of these steps, you can find a a pre-order of the book here.


Arnaud Chevallier

Professor of Strategy at IMD

Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at IMD, Director of the Global Management Foundations program, and Co-Director of the Complex Problem Solving program. His research, teaching, and consulting on strategic thinking bridges disciplines to provide concrete tools to improve decision making and corporate problem solving. He has written two books: Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving and Solvable: A Simple Solution to Complex Problems, co-authored with Albrecht Enders.

Albrecht Enders

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Albrecht Enders is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at IMD and co-director of the Business Leadership Training program. His major research, teaching, and consulting interests are in the areas of managing discontinuous change and top-team strategy development processes. Before joining IMD, Professor Enders spent three years as a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Cologne where he worked on projects in the areas of financial services, energy, and industrial goods.

Phil Rosenzweig - IMD Professor

Philip Rosenzweig

Professor of Strategy and international Management

Emeritus Professor Phil Rosenzweig has been Professor of Strategy and International Management at IMD since 1996. He directed IMD’s Executive MBA program for six years. He is the author of The Halo Effect and Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers.

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