9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers

solve complex problems

Dealing with Problems


We deal with them all day. Whether at work or at home, they seem to chase us down.

What if our problem-solving efforts could be radically improved?

What if you could increase your confidence in solving hard problems?

What if you could stop wasting time and money and implement the right solution?

Serial entrepreneur Nat Greene, author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers , says that we are trained to solve easy problems by guessing, and we often only learn to work around problems rather than tackle them.

Great problem-solvers don’t guess. They use different methods and behaviors than most of us. And anyone can learn to improve their problem-solving ability.


“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” -Charles Kettering


The Hidden Costs of Bad Problem Solving

How would you describe the hidden cost of bad problem solving?

Most people understand the basic notion that when problems don’t get solved, value is lost—value to your business and life, and to society. These problems are legion. They affect our health and safety, our happiness. If you think of the toughest problems the world needs to solve, or your business needs to solve, I’m sure you’ll come up with many of them. And you’ll have a very clear understanding that solving these could make a huge difference.

These problems persist simply because we’re not solving them. However, bad problem solving is far more nefarious. Bat problem solving means poor solutions—solutions that are wasteful, painful, or make things even worse than the problem. You may know the proverb, “the medicine is worse than the disease.” Think of examples where a famous business or large government has thrown massive amounts of resources at a problem without a real strategy. Or when a major asset wasn’t working, and instead of solving the root cause of the problem, the organization just bought a new one and hurt its debt position.

Such bad problem solving is worse than the problems themselves for two reasons. First, when a problem is badly solved, people stop trying to come up with a better solution. They may have fooled themselves into thinking they had a good solution or decided the bad solution was “good enough” or even realized that by “solving” the problem, they lost political permission to keep working on it. So unlike an unsolved problem, a bad solution is something you’re likely to be stuck with.

The second issue is that we begin to believe these bad solutions are all that is possible. It’s so common for people to work around an issue, patch it, throw money at it, or learn to live with it, that if we are not vigilant, we will begin to believe this is just a harsh reality we must accept. Through their lives, many people will just lower their expectations about what’s possible. They’ll stop trying so hard to come up with great solutions to the world’s hardest problems because they’ve been taught by example that it can’t be done.


Why are people unable to solve hard problems?

The most basic answer is that nobody taught them how, and actually taught them how to solve easy problems instead. Easy problems have few likely root causes—perhaps 2 or 3—and guessing can be an effective way of quickly getting to the root cause. Say your light bulb is out—the bulb is probably burnt and you should replace it. If that doesn’t work, try the breaker switch. If that doesn’t work… well, maybe you just forgot to flip the switch in the first place. That’s easy stuff, and guessing works just fine.

We’ve learned to guess at problems because it’s worked for us, but it’s also reinforced everywhere. In school, if a teacher asks a question, we’re expected to shoot up our hand with a guess. If we’re wrong, we’re still rewarded—“good try!” In work, when there’s a serious problem, people get together and brainstorm “ideas” (that’s code for “guesses”) about what to do next. In the haste to solve the problem as quickly as possible, there’s such an urge to act that people want ideas they can try out immediately rather than good problem solving. Even our evolution teaches us to guess: we simply lacked the technical skills to reason out what to do about the saber-toothed tiger that jumped out from behind a bush; thinking too hard about it was pruned from our family tree a long time ago.

Such guessing doesn’t work with hard problems because by their nature they have hundreds or thousands of potential root causes. The true root cause of your particular problem is likely to be hidden or obscure, and you simply won’t be able to guess it. Finding the root cause requires rigor and patience. It requires focusing on understanding the problem and the process itself rather than attempting to come up with solutions right away. What works to solve hard problems is essentially the opposite of what solves easy ones.


“I never guess. It’s a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty.” -Sherlock Holmes

The First Step in Solving Your Biggest Problems


This is a guest post by Mark Miller. Mark is the best-selling author of six books, an in-demand speaker, and the Vice President of High-Performance Leadership at Chick-Fil-A. His latest book, Leaders Made Here: Building a Leadership Culture, outlines a clear and replicable approach to creating the leadership bench every organization needs.


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lao Tzu


Take the First Step

I’m guessing much of your life and leadership is devoted to problem-solving.

If you aren’t trying to fix the problems you currently face, you are probably attempting to anticipate, and proactively respond to, problems on the horizon. Maybe the problem you are trying to address is how to continue to fuel your current success – a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Problem-solving is a part of a leader’s ever-present reality.

I’ve been searching for years for ways to make my investment in this critical activity more fruitful. Today I’ll share some practices that have helped make our team’s problem-solving efforts more effective.

Let’s begin our deep dive on the topic with a mistake I’ve personally witnessed thousands of times. Before I share it, brace yourself for a blinding flash of the obvious! Are you ready?


“Problem solving is a part of a leader’s ever-present reality.” -Mark Miller


Don’t solve for symptoms.