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 Surprising Predictive Power of Analytics

You have been predicted.

Companies, government, universities, law enforcement.  All are using computers to predict what you will do.

Will you click on the link in the email?

When will you die?

Will you pay your credit card bill on time?

Are you pregnant?

Dr. Eric Siegel recently released Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie or Die. It’s a fascinating book that has surprisingly broad ramifications for all of us. Eric is a former Columbia University professor, the founder of Predictive Analytics World and Executive Editor of the Predictive Analytics Times.

Let’s start with the definition. What is predictive analytics?

It’s technology that gives organizations the power not only to predict the future, but to influence it. The shortest definition of predictive analytics is my book’s subtitle, the power to predict who will click, buy, lie, or die. Predictive analytics is the technology that learns from data to make predictions about what each individual will do–from thriving and donating to stealing and crashing your car. By doing so, organizations boost the success of marketing, auditing, law-enforcing, medically treating, educating, and even running a political campaign for president.book_med_2

Why should the average person care about predictive analytics?

Prediction is the key to driving improved decisions, guiding millions of per-person actions. For healthcare, this saves lives. For law enforcement, it fights crime. For business, it decreases risk, lowers cost, improves customer service, and decreases unwanted postal mail and spam. It was a contributing factor to the reelection of the U.S. president.

Let’s jump to politics then. How did President Obama’s campaign gain an edge by using persuasion modeling?

The Obama campaign’s analytics team applied persuasion modeling (aka uplift modeling) in the same way it can be applied to marketing: drive per-person (voter/customer) campaign decisions by way of per-person predictions. If an individual is predicted to be persuadable, then make campaign contact (e.g., a knock on the door). By utilizing resources (campaign volunteers) more effectively in this way, the campaign enacted the new science of mass persuasion. They proved this won them more votes, within swing states and elsewhere.

Everyone is talking about “big data” but data on its own isn’t interesting or useful. You explain how data can show incredibly interesting insights including the fact that if you retire early, your life expectancy drops. Tell me more about that and what else we’ve learned from it.

Beyond the great hype around so much data, the real question is what to do with it. Answer: use data to predict human behavior.

The whole point of data is to learn from it to predict. Talking about how much data there is misses this point. What is the value, the function, the purpose? The one thing that makes the biggest difference to improve how organizations operate is to predict.

Why You Should Empower Employees

Several weeks ago, my wife and I headed out for a quick lunch.  I had been traveling and speaking in a few cities and was glad to be home.  Before lunch, we needed a few supplies and stopped at Target.

Target does a lot right.  Wide, brightly lit aisles.  Easy-to-find merchandise.  And friendly staff who seem happy.

When I was grabbing the items I needed off the shelf, I noticed a sign.  “Buy three of these items and get a $5 gift card,” one sign said.  The other said, “Buy two and get another $5 gift card.”  I only needed one of each item, but I thought why not take the money so I loaded up.

At the checkout counter, we paid for items and then I asked about our gift cards.  We liked the kind woman who was helping us.  She was efficient and the type who could build a relationship fast.  “I thought about that,” she responded.  “Let me check….no, this item doesn’t qualify for some reason.  I know you only bought this many so you would get the card.”

She pulled open the Target brochure, looked at the item, and still couldn’t figure why it didn’t give us the cards.  I explained that I checked the labels when I took the items off the shelf and that they were immediately behind the sign.  She shook her head and offered to have someone go check the sign.

Immediately in my mind I pictured what would happen:  A light would go off.  She would get on an intercom and bellow, “Man in Aisle 9 needs a price check!”  We would hold up the line, miss our lunch reservation, and a manager would come out to talk to us.

“Forget it,” I said, not wanting to cause a scene and not having any time to wait.  For me, the pain wasn’t worth it.  (But I’m thrifty enough that it did bother me.)

“I’m sorry,” she responded with an “I wish I could do something” attitude.

Management Lesson

This is not a story about Target.  It’s a good store.  This is not a story about the checkout clerk.  She was so nice we would seek out her line next time.

It’s a lesson for management.  And it’s all about empowerment.