I was a math major in college and graduate school, but certainly not a math genius. I struggled to get my graduate degree. But I learned the art and science of problem solving through mathematics. I don’t remember any of the mathematics, but I use the problem-solving skills that I learned every day.
In college, you are not given 50-100 arithmetic problems to solve. Instead, you may work on one or two problems for days or even weeks. Sometimes I would work late into the evening, go to sleep and the solution would come to me while sleeping at 3:00 am. The problem with this, of course, is that I still wake up at 3:00 am every night now. But, back to the point, I learned to solve complex problems.
There is no greater use for this skill than in entrepreneurial companies. As an entrepreneur, trying to grow you company, you are faced with a myriad of problems which might include, product problems, marketing problems, sales problems, financial problems, customer support problems, people problems, partner problems and on and on. The solution to these problems is often not easy. There are many choices and choosing the right solution for your individual situation (of the problem, the company, the resources available (etc.) are many). But building a company is solving a constant, on-going and evolving set of problems.
This is a skill that is an absolute requirement for a successful entrepreneur. But many entrepreneurs are not equipped to solve problems outside of their domain expertise. This is where companies often break. You need to know how to apply the problem-solving skill to a range of issues. So, if you have a problem, and you can’t solve it, the solution is to find someone who can.
A natural way to think about problem-solving involves curiosity. People who are naturally curious can often be very good problem solvers. They can think about what can go wrong and explore solutions to either prevent the problem or solve it if it does occur. So, it does not take the smartest person to solve a problem, it can take the most curious person to solve it. Einstein once said that there was nothing remarkable about him except for his curiosity.
There is (probably) no set plan for general problem-solving. Here are some suggestions that can help:
- Accept that problems are inevitable
- See problems as opportunity
- Truly understand the problem
- Do not over-react. Learn to objectively evaluate threats and consequences
- Break the problem down into components if possible
- Look to other industries for potential solution ideas
- Determine what you can and can’t control (make a list)
- Gather ideas from others but do not necessarily try to solve the problem using group-think
- Let ideas percolate (remember my going to sleep and having the solution come to me while sleeping)
- Establish a plan with metrics for success and timetable and plan B if plan A does not work in the established time frame
- Take bold actions
- Listen to the nay-sayers and incorporate their issues into your plan but do not get discouraged by what they say
- Relentlessly communicate your plan for solving the problem
- Get buy in from stakeholders
- Execute the plan relentlessly to the lowest level possible
- Learn from the problem to see if improvements can be made here and elsewhere to prevent future problems
But most importantly, understand the current problem and make sure that you are focusing on the problem that you actually have and not the one that you would like to have or are more comfortable solving. I have a number of customers whose challenges are clear. But they focus on what they want to do rather than what the real issue is. They either refuse to accept the problem in front of them, or, they fail to recognize it. Neither is good.
In addition, one potential downside of this is that STEM or other science-educated people, who often end up in entrepreneurship, are not equipped for the “artistic” side of problem-solving. For instance, engineers or health educators and others, like certainty and also don’t like to take risks. Problem solving in entrepreneurship is, therefore, somewhat different than problem-solving in science. You may never have certainty and you always have risk. You need creativity, some risk-taking and other skills that are uncomfortable for science or math educated people. If you are uncomfortable with uncertainty and risk, this is where having strong “artistic” people can come into play. An artistic person also solves problems and often is more creative and comfortable with risk-taking. The idea here is what I said at the beginning: “entrepreneurial problem-solving is both art and science”. So creative problem-solving is required. To achieve creativity in problem-solving, do whatever you do to get the creative juices flowing like read, play music, look at art, go for a walk, talk to others, take a nap…
In order to succeed in building a company, you need to be a relentless problem-identifier and problem-solver. In my opinion, it is the most critical skill or characteristic required of an early-stage CEO. Problems are inevitable. Seeing them as opportunities is healthy and also reduces stress since you are anticipating them rather than surprised by them. What can go wrong, will go wrong. So, buck up and try to anticipate challenges and problems before they bite you.
Here is the conclusion. Building a company is solving a series of problems across a wide range of issues. Learn to recognize and focus on the problems that are truly impacting your business, not what you are comfortable with. Accept problems, learn to deal with them and combine scientific and artistic problem-solving skills, or have a team that can work together to do that…or die. OK?