Rice University logo
Top blue bar image

ENGI/LEAD 545 Strategic Thinking for Complex Problem Solving

Strategic Thinking shows how to solve complex, ill-defined, non-immediate (CIDNI) problems. It explains how to combine innovative and critical thinking to:

  1. Frame the problem,
  2. Diagnose the problem,
  3. Identify potential solutions and choose which one(s) to implement, and
  4. Implement the solution(s).

The approach is based on cases, each student will work on a project of their choosing. The course is equally applicable to academic and non-academic projects—such as management consulting—in any industry; as such, it is open to students from all schools and departments. It is a part of a larger professional development initiative at Rice to equip students with skills that employers are specifically asking for.

Strategic Thinking in a nutshell

Employers are asking recent graduate to have skills and knowledge that go beyond expertise in their own discipline. Chief among those is an ability to solve complex problems.

Facing a new, complex situation, you should be able to effectively and efficiently identify how to move ahead. There are many ways to do this; (Woods, 2000) has identified some 150 processes used in various disciplines. Ours is a four step process:

Strategic thinking for complex problem solving is a four-step process

Strategic thinking for complex problem solving is a four-step process

The process starts with identifying what you should be doing; i.e., framing or defining the problem. Next, you identify why you’re having the problem, why you haven’t fixed it yet, or why it is desirable to solve it. Third, look at the how, identifying alternative ways of solving the problem, comparing them, and selecting one (or several). Finally is the implementation, the do part, where you execute the strategy that you’ve developed in the three previous steps.

To help you follow these steps, we’ll use various tools. An important one is the issue map (also called issue tree, or logic tree).

Issue maps allow you to be effective and efficient in your thinking

An issue map is a graphical breakdown of the problem. Using an issue map allows you to consider all aspects of your problem exactly once. It also serves as a central repository where you can store all the evidence you gather about your problem. In addition, using such a graphical approach can help you improve your critical thinking (Twardy, 2010).

Below is an example of an issue map to diagnose a problem—i.e., understand its root cause.

How can we increase our profitability issue map

An issue map breaks down a problem in its parts. Perhaps the most well-known map is a profitability map (also called profitability issue tree, or profitability tree), which summarizes the various ways in which an organization can increase its profitability.

Our approach to problem solving, and many of the tools we are using, is compatible with that of strategy consultants, so if you are considering interviewing with McKinsey, Bain, BCG or any of those, you will directly benefit from the class.

I typically teach ENGI/LEAD 545 in the spring. Here is the syllabus for Spring 2015: Syllabus Strategic Thinking for Complex Problem Solving 2014-11-14-0848


Davis, I., et al. (2007). “The McKinsey approach to problem solving.” McKinsey Staff Paper(66): 27.

Twardy, C. (2010). “Argument maps improve critical thinking.” Teaching Philosophy 27(2): 95-116.

Woods, D. R. (2000). “An Evidence‐Based Strategy for Problem Solving.” Journal of Engineering Education 89(4): 443-459.