The 9 Ways Problem Solvers Distinguish Themselves
By Nat Greene
Most people are not great at solving hard problems: they are either intimidated away from solving them in the first place, or attempt a few solutions that fail. After failure, they learn to live with the problem or create an expensive or tedious work-around. People fail even when they are smart, educated, motivated, and armed with a problem-solving process. The reason they fail is that they ultimately revert to guessing at solutions.
The way that great problem solvers distinguish themselves is by employ a more powerful set of behaviors. They approach problems fundamentally differently than others, and allows them to decisively identify the root causes of the hardest problems, and solve them permanently. If you want to get better at solving a problem, learn from those who do it well.
Here are the 9 behaviors that great problem-solvers use to solve hard problems with skill and panache:
1. Stop guessing. Stop taking stabs in the dark and just trying things out. After a few ineffective guesses at a hard problem, you’ll realize it’s time to try something new. But if you don’t have a way to work out a solution, chances are you’ll fall back on your old habits and the problem will go unsolved. That’s where the other eight behaviors come in. They will help you to address the problem effectively instead.
2. Smell the problem. Step away from your desk and get into the field. Use your natural senses and the tools already at your disposal to assess where the failure started and the pattern it took. Don’t bury yourself in reams of data. Ask relevant questions about that specific problem. This behavior may solve some moderately difficult problems right away. For harder challenges, it’s a critical step towards a solution.
3. Embrace your ignorance. Most people try to solve problems using the knowledge they already have. But it’s what you don’t know that matters, not what you do. Great problem-solvers embrace their ignorance. Instead of trying to protect their reputation as an expert, they ask questions others might find “stupid.” The behavior shatters old assumptions you have about the problem, so you can look at it with fresh eyes.
4. Know what problem you’re solving. Often, people work on the wrong problem entirely by making some implicit assumption about what’s causing it. But if you don’t know what the problem really is, you can’t fix it. Great problem-solvers take the time to define the problem in an accurate, precise way. Instead of jumping to conclusions, they take careful measurements. They invest the time to observe it so they know exactly what’s wrong.
5. Dig into the fundamentals. Learn how the process works, including the basic science behind it: every process and problem obeys the laws of science. Understanding that science is critical to discovering what’s causing the problem. Focus on how the process controls the specific problem, rather than try to wrap your arms around the entire process at once.
6. Don’t rely on experts. Too often, people delegate problem solving to internal and external experts. While experts are critical to understanding a complex system and its underlying functionality and science, they may not be as well positioned to solve the problem for you. The best problem-solvers always view experts as collaborators rather than saviors, and drive the search for solutions themselves.
7. Believe in a simple solution. It might be comforting to believe the solution to a complex problem will be just as complex. Thinking “it’s just really complicated” makes it easier to give up before going through the necessary rigor. But great problem-solvers are tenacious. They won’t stop until they’ve gotten to the root of the problem — and that’s where the easiest, most economical solution will emerge.
8. Make fact-based decisions. Making a decision that’s based on opinion, a vote, an authority, or any other subjective system is a form of guessing about what to do next. Great problem-solvers insist on using only the facts to make a decision about a problem. They also relentlessly verify what they are told, and
check data streams to ensure that what they’re seeing represents reality.
9. Stay on target. When they deep-dive into a problem, people frequently seek to find as many potential causes as possible, so they can test them all. But this approach will waste time and resources. A hard problem has hundreds or thousands of potential root causes; it’s unlikely the true root cause will be in that long list. Great problem-solvers measure the drivers that most immediately control the problem, and then rule out as many variables as they can, as early as possible. This keeps them efficiently on-track and focused.
Great problem solvers avoid guesswork, taking a structured approach that reveals how the failure happened. By applying these 9 behaviors, they get a lucid picture of the problem, and stay targeted on an effective solution. And that takes care of another problem we all have: getting better at solving problems in the first place. Whether you’re tackling a production snafu, a crisis at home, or any other challenge, these are 9 behaviors that work.
Which behaviors are your greatest strengths? Find out with this online quiz.
Nathaniel Greene is the co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers. Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School's Owner/President Management program.