Five routes to more innovative problem solving

Rob McEwen had a problem. The chairman and chief executive officer of Canadian mining group Goldcorp knew that its Red Lake site could be a money-spinner—a mine nearby was thriving—but no one could figure out where to find high-grade ore. The terrain was inaccessible, operating costs were high, and the unionized staff had already gone on strike. In short, McEwen was lumbered with a gold mine that wasn’t a gold mine.

Then inspiration struck. Attending a conference about recent developments in IT, McEwen was smitten with the open-source revolution. Bucking fierce internal resistance, he created the Goldcorp Challenge: the company put Red Lake’s closely guarded topographic data online and offered $575,000 in prize money to anyone who could identify rich drill sites. To the astonishment of players in the mining sector, upward of 1,400 technical experts based in 50-plus countries took up the problem. The result? Two Australian teams, working together, found locations that have made Red Lake one of the world’s richest gold mines. “From a remote site, the winners were able to analyze a database and generate targets without ever visiting the property,” McEwen said. “It’s clear that this is part of the future.”

McEwen intuitively understood the value of taking a number of different approaches simultaneously to solving difficult problems. A decade later, we find that this mind-set is ever more critical: business leaders are operating in an era when forces such as technological change and the historic rebalancing of global economic activity from developed to emerging markets have made the problems increasingly complex, the tempo faster, the markets more volatile, and the stakes higher. The number of variables at play can be enormous, and free-flowing information encourages competition, placing an ever-greater premium on developing innovative, unique solutions.

This article presents an approach for doing just that. How? By using what we call flexible objects for generating novel solutions, or flexons, which provide a way of shaping difficult problems to reveal innovative solutions that would otherwise remain hidden. This approach can be useful in a wide range of situations and at any level of analysis, from individuals to groups to organizations to industries. To be sure, this is not a silver bullet for solving any problem whatever. But it is a fresh mechanism for representing ambiguous, complex problems in a structured way to generate better and more innovative solutions.

The flexons approach

Networks flexon

Evolutionary flexon

Decision-agent flexon

System-dynamics flexon

Information-processing flexon

Putting flexons to work

Flexons help turn chaos into order by representing ambiguous situations and predicaments as well-defined, analyzable problems of prediction and optimization. They allow us to move up and down between different levels of detail to consider situations in all their complexity. And, perhaps most important, flexons allow us to bring diversity inside the head of the problem solver, offering more opportunities to discover counterintuitive insights, innovative options, and unexpected sources of competitive advantage.

About the author(s)

Olivier Leclerc is a principal in McKinsey’s Southern California office. Mihnea Moldoveanu is associate dean of the full-time MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, where he directs the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking.

More: www.mckinsey.com