9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers

solve complex problems

Dealing with Problems

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 Innovative Thinking Behind the Reinvention of Football

Reinventing American Football

Almost anything is ripe for innovation. We’ve all seen startups wipe out the established players. We’ve seen whole industries upended as new technologies create new possibilities.

I love to collect these stories. It’s also fun to collect quotes from the naysayers who laughed at the disrupters, but are later proven wrong.

Aspiring leaders always benefit from studying disruption whether in your own industry or even in a distant field. Because often the principles and lessons are applicable elsewhere.

That’s why I have to share this story with you. It’s the reinvention of American football.

Don’t care about football?

Just wait.

You may learn a few lessons from this story that may inspire you. And even if you don’t, you may find yourself at a cocktail party one day, looking for conversation. Read this and you’ll have another story guaranteed to fascinate everyone.

S.C. Gwynne is a first-rate author. Sam was a finalist for the Pulitzer and worked at Time as bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor. Mix his superb writing with a compelling story and you have The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. I recently had the opportunity to ask him about his research into the reinvention of the game.

 

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” –Steve Jobs

 

A Passing Innovation

Hal Mumme transformed football from a running game to a passing game. Who knew!? Your book tells the untold story of how this transformation happened, and it does it in a compelling way. Would you briefly share how this happened?

In the NFL, the middle 1970s came to be known as the “dead ball era.” Fewer points were scored than at any time since 1942. Fewer passes were thrown than at any time since the 1950s. The game was heading back to its ground-and-pound origins, which is what many players and coaches really wanted anyway: a bloody scrum in the middle of the field featuring halfback dives and snarling middle linebackers. Things got so bad—and so boring (it was just as bad in the college game)—that the NFL made radical changes to its blocking rules in 1978, allowing offensive linemen to use their hands, and limiting how many times a receiver could be bumped.The Perfect Pass by S.C. Gwynne

It was, coincidentally, precisely at that time that the coaches who would change the game arrived on the scene. Bill Walsh was experimenting with what would become the West Coast offense; Don Coryell’s receivers were running routes in new ways; Mouse Davis was setting records at Portland State; LaVell Edwards was starting his long run of offensive dominance at BYU, and a young Hal Mumme was studying the passing tactics of all the above. Fast forward to the present day, where a few quick statistics will illustrate the impact those coaches collectively had on the game. Prior to 1991 (the year Hal arguably changed the game), five NCAA D-1 quarterbacks had passed for 10,000 yards or more in their college careers. Since then, 90 more have done it. Of the 92 quarterbacks to date who have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, 78 have done it since the year 2000. And so on. The game has changed.

Of these passing innovations, by far the two most extreme were the Run and Shoot—invented by Ohio high school coach Tiger Ellison in the 1970s and brought into the modern age by Mouse Davis at Portland State in the 1970s—and the Air Raid. No one else was even close. As I describe in my book, the Run and Shoot did not really survive the 1990s, while the Air Raid was just starting to take off.

Hal’s approach began with the fact that he simply threw the ball more than anyone else. At Iowa Wesleyan, his quarterback Dustin Dewald once completed 61 of 86 passes, both all-time records. He passed on first down and fourth. Hal also messed with the basic assumptions, goals, objectives, and premises of the game. If most football teams ran 60 offensive plays in a game, he ran 85 to 90 and sometimes 100. If most teams believed that controlling the ball—time of possession—was the most important single statistic of the game (other than the score), Hal’s players behaved as though that number was utterly meaningless. He put five feet of space between his offensive linemen, shifting the basic geometry of the line of scrimmage. In a world of exceedingly complex playbooks and ever-multiplying plays, Hal had no playbook and only a handful of plays. His players saw a dead simple game, while opposing defenses saw what looked like wild complexity. Because Hal usually went for it on fourth down, his teams had four downs to make a first down, while his opponents had three, thus altering the assumptions one might make about what sort of play Hal would call on third and 9. (Hint: in his relativistic universe, he does not have to make 9 yards.) And so on. It was as though Hal’s team was playing an entirely different game.

 

Hal Mumme coaching on the sidelines, Used by Permission Hal Mumme coaching on the sidelines, Used by Permission


You point out that before Hal Mumme introduced his technique, only five NCAA Quarterbacks had ever thrown for more than 10,000 yards and since then 90 have done it. That’s amazing. When did his technique catch on with others?

Though one can argue—as I do, in my book—that Hal definitively changed the game of football in the Iowa Wesleyan-Northeast Missouri State game on August 31, 1991, the rest of the world did not know that. The football world would not truly understand what he had done until the late 1990s. That was when he took his video game offenses to the game’s motherland—the SEC—when he became head coach at the University of Kentucky and did what everyone said he could not possibly do: in 1997 he beat Alabama. After the Alabama game, American football started making pilgrimages to his doorstep.

 

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