If your company has mind-boggling problems, a Stanford professor advocates using an approach that uses building blocks.

Yes, he recommends solving problems with a process reminiscent of building blocks used by kids.

Sound incredible? As many parents know, their children enjoy playing building blocks.

The professor, Jonathan Bendor, Ph.D., is a political economist at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Professor Bendor examined the 20th century work of organizational behavior theorist Charles Lindblom at Yale University. In the late 1950s, Dr. Lindblom disagreed with the synoptic method for problem-solving.

The synoptic method involves developing a strategic plan with a structure of steps. But Dr. Lindblom argued the method didn’t work for complex situations.

In The Science of Muddling Through,” he advocated using “disjointed incrementalism,” via heuristics encouraged the discovery of solutions via small incremental changes. His theories became popular among scholars.

So Dr. Bendor decided to test the feasibility of Dr. Lindblom’s disjoint incrementalism theories for today’s business environment.

The Stanford professor had a mixed reaction calling it “dead yet flourishing,” according to an informative Stanford article written by by Lily B. Clausen:

Although the overall theory of disjointed incrementalism is a “spent intellectual force,” its components, especially the “Big Three” – local search, iterative adaptation, and distributed intelligence – are flourishing.

Indeed, Bendor prefers a toolkit approach to decision-making in which incrementalism’s Big Three are vital heuristics — a rule of thumb that cuts a complex problem down to a manageable size.

They may not work as an integrated problem-solving technique, but as individual heuristics they work great.

In his analysis of disjointed incrementalism and the synoptic method, Dr. Bendor recommends a decision-making approach that uses basic building blocks, like Duplo blocks, that can be combined in a variety of ways.

“There aren’t just two fixed methods of decision making like Lindblom thought,” says Professor Bendor. “The elements can be broken down and then combined and recombined in new ways.”

In other words, he suggests using a mix-and-match of cognitive shortcuts.

… Dr. Bendor recommends a decision-making approach that uses basic building blocks, like Duplo blocks, that can be combined in a variety of ways.

Ms. Clausen’s article lists Dr. Bendor’s six recommended options:


Carve off part of a big problem and disperse its subcomponents to different groups. “You can have a problem that’s too big for anybody’s mind, but if you break off a piece of it, it’s more manageable,” Bendor says.

Local Search

Evaluating something that’s radically different from the status quo is bound to be fraught with error. Bendor recommends searching in the neighborhood of the status quo. It’s easier to design new alternatives if they are similar to those that already exist.


Solutions for hard problems are rarely complete. Lindblom used the term “seriality” or iterative adaptation to talk about small changes made rapidly. “This plan will get us from A to G,” explains Bendor. “That’s pretty good. And then from G we’ll look around and think again and figure out how to get from G to R. Then when we’re there we’ll figure out [the rest].”

Multiple Minds

Having many people working independently on the same problem increases the likelihood of success, Bendor says, referring to what Lindblom calls distributed intelligence. It also helps to include people from varied backgrounds. For example, a team wrestling with a big data problem might consider incorporating a visual artist, cognitive scientist, and computer scientist to bring different insights to the problem solving.


Find out how other organizations are already dealing with a problem and imitate those who are successful, says Bendor.


Elements from different domains can be combined and tweaked to form something new. Or as Bendor says, “Subroutines from each approach can cross-breed and produce viable offspring.”

From the Coach’s Corner, here are links to related strategies:

Business Problem Solving Means Compartmentalizing — Here’s How — When a businessperson has challenges, it can be overwhelming. If you chat with some businesspeople, they believe they have challenges that no one else has. That’s because they haven’t experienced the new challenges before nor have they heard about the problems elsewhere in their industry.

To Become a Leader, Develop Strategic-Planning Skills in 5 Steps — A salient characteristic of leadership is strategic thinking. If you’re ambitious, the ability to be a strategic planner is critical for your success. Here are five ways to achieve your goal.

Risk Management – Making Best Decisions, Using Right Tactics — To prevent a crisis from interfering with the continuity of your business, you must strategically plan to manage any potential risks. That means avoiding the classic mistakes routinely made by companies, and making the right decisions for proactive measures to minimize any dangers.

9 Dos and Don’ts for Best Decision-making — Nine tips if you have difficulty making the best decisions, engage in self doubt after making one, or you’re gun shy because your decisions go awry.

Vision in Setting Goals with 8 Best Practices — Whatever your entrepreneurial dreams, focusing on the right details is a skill conducive for setting goals strategically. However, if management doesn’t ponder enough on action-oriented details, goals are inordinately difficult to achieve.

Whatever good things we build, end up building us.
– Jim Rohn


Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.