In Leadership

Problem solving is an essential skill for any good leader. The article below shares three promising approaches in fine-tuning one’s problem solving abilities. CK

Article written by Howard Tullman originally appeared in on December 1, 2020.

No one should ever use the expression “stable startup” in polite company because nothing could be more oxymoronic. Each day in an entrepreneur’s life is a personal invitation to one form of chaos, crisis, confusion or another. It’s part of the job description and always just a question of what’s gonna be the next big or little thing coming around the corner to smack you in the face. This lifestyle may sound pretty awful, but it’s never boring and keeps you on your toes. As my Mom used to explain: “if it’s not one thing, it’s another.” And the parade of hits just keeps coming.

But the problems you encounter in doing anything new and different aren’t especially special – they’re par for the course, daily occurrences, and completely normal. And rather than being a sign of concern, they’re actually a constant source of energy and encouragement for serious business builders.

The best entrepreneurs learn to attack, not ignore or avoid, their problems.  They treat them as opportunities for rapid change and course corrections. And, as often as not, if they keep working on solutions, they find a creative way to grow themselves out of their most pressing problems. I learned a long time ago that sales can solve almost any startup’s problems and cure a multitude of other sins. Contrary to the old joke, as long as you can count, you actually can often “make it up” on the volume.

But in approaching and analyzing your problems, getting the right start is absolutely critical. Too many entrepreneurs hurriedly grab the nearest and/or quickest solution. They usually discover that for every problem, there’s always one solution that’s simple, neat — and dead wrong. Others fall back on the same couple of approaches they’ve always employed – partly out of habit and partly due to laziness – and partly because this approach has worked out pretty well for them in the past. But the same approach isn’t going to work in a future where all the rules have changed.

Thinking that anything is going to be “back to normal” or “business as usual” is a bad strategy right now, when change is the only constant and new technologies and tools allow you to try things you never even imagined were possible before. Every industry and every business is going to be disrupted – much more rapidly than we ever expected – and changed for good. Hopefully for the better, too.

Medicine is a great example. I always worry that my internist doesn’t have the time to read up on the massive amount of medical literature being published about new drugs and procedures, to see if there are better answers out there for his patients. You and I may know as much about the latest and greatest promises and advances as your doc does, just from watching the unending stream of medical ads on television. Everyone wants the purple pill these days – whatever their symptoms – whether or not that therapeutic is appropriate for their ailment. The reality is that the tried-and-true drugs of old probably won’t make you worse (or kill you), but the real question is, what’s out there that might make you much better in less time.

The fact is that, in any kind of research and decision making, a little patience, some consistent methodology and a better and broader approach pays off better in the end. You don’t have to go slow, but you’ve got to be smart about considering all your options.  Yes, I know that “all” is a scary word and I know all about analysis paralysis as well. I’m not suggesting that you have to wait until you’re “right” or absolutely sure in order to proceed, but speed alone isn’t helpful if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

You can increase your odds, improve your ultimate outcomes, and you won’t even materially slow down the entire process if you just follow a few simple rules.

(1) Look Further. Too many times we’re just in a hurry and we tend to grab the option that is sitting right in front of us. The one that’s fast, easy and even seems reasonable. But it’s often just a make-shift solution that defers the search for a real answer and is likely to let the problem worsen in the meantime. Worse yet, we fall into the “either/or” trap of thinking that we have no other way to go because we haven’t taken the time to look more broadly at the universe of alternatives. You can’t effectively evaluate or consider choices that you know nothing about.

(2) Look Wider. Even when we have the patience and the discipline to look beyond the quick and easy answer and start searching for a better response, we don’t really commit to the process.  Again and again, we tend to grab the best next alternative and declare victory. Juggling several choices isn’t easy and it’s even harder when you’ve got various parties who insist on being part of the decision, so we are always looking to simplify and shorten the list. But the odds are pretty clear: if you look at a single alternative, you’ll get it wrong more than half the time. If you carefully and fairly consider two or more alternatives, you’ll make the right decision more than 60% of the time.

(3) Look Deeper. Too often we get stuck dealing with the most obvious symptoms of a problem and never dig deeply enough to get to the root cause so that it can be addressed and resolved. A common reason is that we talk only to our peers and direct reports instead of seeking input from the field and the front line. Saying what you think no one wants to hear is never easy, but the best problem solvers I know are also the very best listeners and they make it easy for others to be heard.

Bottom line: it’s not one thing. It’s not either/or. It’s not what’s quick or handy. It’s gonna take a little time, a lot of looking, and some attentive listening. But when the dust finally settles, the way forward is clear, and the decision’s made, if you follow these simple rules, you’ll be on the right path, with the right plan, and far ahead of the pack.

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