Saturday, January 12, 2013

T-shaped Problem-Solving at McKinsey and 3 Reasons Why It's Preferred

At McKinsey, there's a strong preference for T-shaped problem solving - making sure you've considered all of the applicable topics before going too deep on any of them.  This applies to problem solving a client engagement, case interviews, and working for a former McKinsey boss.

What is T-shaped problem solving?

Business is usually more about identifying better answers than finding a single, "right" answer.  So, it pays to make sure you've considered a wide range of solutions when problem-solving.

The universe of potential answers can typically be organized as topics or "buckets" of more detailed ideas or options.  Think of BREADTH as considering multiple topics and DEPTH as going into greater detail on specific topics.

T-shaped problem solving requires being diligent and exhaustive across all relevant topics BEFORE going deep and committing to going into detail on a specific topic.

Why is that the preferred approach?

1.  It has structure

The T-shaped approach provides a clear, logical means for looking for the best answers and is superior to any UNSTRUCTURED response.  You will get almost on credit for a "laundry list" of answers, even if they are among the best answers because a) there's no way to know if the list is thorough, b) you might over-invest time pursuing suboptimal answers, and c) you lack the ability to walk clients through the logic used to get to the answers helps increases your credibility and client buy-in to the answers.

2.  It enables collaborative problem solving

The T-shaped approach requires building and considering a list of all of the potentially relevant topics or buckets of answers.  This allows others to help you consider a) is your list comprehensive and b) are you choosing the right topics to investigate further?

3.  It focuses your time and resources on the most promising areas

Going deep on a particular topic or bucket of potential answers takes a lot of time and effort.  By being thoughtful about where to go deep, you can prioritize and apply your resources more wisely.  Not doing this and trying to go deep everywhere is viewed negatively and referred to as "boiling the ocean".  Even worse is going deep in the wrong places.  When your time is precious, there's nothing worse than exhausting an avenue of thought only to find nothing of value at the end.


What's wrong with I-shaped problem solving?

The alternative to T-shaped problem solving is an I-shaped approach.  This is when you begin by going deep on one or two topics.  The concern with I-shaped problem solving is that it's inferior to the T-shaped approach on each of the 3 points listed above.
  1. It's only structured vertically - your sub-list(s) of details might be structured and thorough, but your list of topics is not.
  2. It only allows vertical collaboration - others can see and understand your approach to building your sub-list(s) of details, but it's too late for them to contribute to choosing on which topics you go deep
  3. You might waste a lot of time and effort - If you've selected the wrong topics on which to go deep, you won't get the right answers and will have to start again elsewhere.  Even worse, you might not realize that you missed an important area of investigation and deliver poor solutions.

Why is this important to me?

Whether you're a) on a McKinsey team, b) working for a former McKinsey consultant, or c) are being interviewed by a current or former consultant, structured problem solving is critical to success.  T-shaped problem solving can help ensure that the structured approach you use is a good one.


As far as I know, the term "T-shaped problem solving" isn't an established term, but it's how I like to describe it.  My apologies if this terminology already exists - I'm not trying to take credit for someone else's framework or phrase.  My internet search for the term did turn up references to T-shaped careers and expertise, but not to T-shaped problem solving.


  1. Fabulous ideas you have still provided to us, anyway this blog is really wonderful for all.

  2. It surprises me not that the surge in vulture fund interest has taken so long to take off with many piling in at the moment. It is herd instinct all over again but one the industry should welcome as it will create jobs. real estate perth