HEC Paris Leaders of Tomorrow Series

How to Become a Better Problem Solver—The 4S Method

In Cracked It!, you’ll learn the 4S method—an integrated, four-stage problem solving approach that combines the tools of strategy consulting with insights from cognitive science and design thinking.


Originally intended for MBA students interested in working at strategy consulting firms, the method can work for anyone.

According to co-author Corey Phelps, now a Professor of Strategy at Mcgill University, “the value of the method is in the discipline it provides. We as human beings have to solve problems all the time, and what we’ve learned from decades of research is that we are not hard-wired to be able to do this naturally. The 4S method helps you slow down and be more methodical.”

So, what is the 4S method?

  1. State: First, you have to state the problem properly, identifying the core question at hand.
  2. Structure: Second, you need to structure the problem around candidate solutions that you’ll then test and investigate systematically.
  3. Solve: Third, you’ll solve the problem by following one of three distinct paths: hypothesis-driven problem solving, issue-driven problem solving, or the creative path of design thinking.
  4. Sell: Finally, you have to sell your solution to the problem owner.

While the 4S method and framework might sound obvious and simple, it’s not. It requires most people to change how they think and react when facing challenges. However, once you become accomplished in this method, not only will it save you from jumping to poor conclusions, it will also make it easier to disentangle complex problems that might otherwise have been out of your reach.

Who Needs Problem Solving Skills the Most?

So, who would benefit most from the 4s method of problem solving? According to HEC Paris Affiliate Professor of Strategy Olivier Sibony, everyone can benefit whether they’re an executive, entrepreneur, strategist, or consultant.

“The archetypal reader we had in mind for the book is an executive who is very successful in her job, and has just been assigned a new, challenging mission,” said Sibony. “Perhaps she was given an important cross-functional project to lead or perhaps she’s been promoted, and now she faces problems that are outside her comfort zone: more multi-faceted and complex.”

However, even if you’re a parent or a kid, the 4S method has value.

“A few months ago, during a conversation with a colleague, I found out he gave Cracked It! to his nine-year-old daughter,” Phelps recalled. “When I asked him, ‘Why?’ he explained that our method of problem solving is something that even kids can understand and use. Now, I’ve started teaching it to my own six-year-old, and have found lots of value in the discipline it provides.”

The key thing to remember is that the most impressive problem solvers you know are not necessarily smarter or better than you are. The difference is that they’ve mastered their skills through relentless practice and continuous improvement, so you can get there too.

If you’d like to learn more about the 4S method, including seeing how it can be applied to real-life case studies, check out Cracked It!  or visit HEC Paris to learn more about their Executive MBA!


About the Author

HEC Paris specializes in education and research in management sciences. As a leading academic institution in Europe and worldwide, HEC Paris offers a complete and unique range of education programs for students and executive education programs for leaders.