10 Unusual Ways to Become a Great Business Problem Solver

Why is it that great companies often fail despite having all the resources they need to continue to dominate their industries? And why is it that start ups often flourish and then decline even though management has an established team and a market presence?

If we reduce all aspects of business down to one activity we can say the purpose of a business is to solve problems: become a great problem solver and you’ll enjoy great success. However with success comes complacency, lazy thinking and pride. And if we rely on money to solve problems instead of finely tuned thinking skills we set the stage for an almost inevitable decline.

Still, there is no excuse for poor thinking. Here are 10 simple ways to become a great business problem solver. Most of these tactics are easy to cultivate and when you combine all of them you’ll notice you are more creative, more decisive and a much better problem solver.

1 Think on Paper

Typically when we have a big problem to solve we talk about it and think about it, and we watch our reasoning go around and around in circles in our head until we feel stuck. We then work harder to solve the problem until we feel unable to come up with solutions.

This happens for one reason, we become emotionally involved in the problem solving process and thereby lose our ability to be rational because we are too caught up in both the process and the need to solve the problem.

The simple solution is to think on paper. Write down the nature of the problem and take great care to define the problem as it really is. Then describe the current situation and list all solutions, good solutions and even terrible solutions.

By thinking on paper you create a distance between you and the problem that allows you to become more objective because your emotions are removed from the equation. This objectivity will enable you to think more clearly and find solutions that work.

2 Quiet Mind

Breakthroughs tend to have one key factor in common: the right state of mind. There is a time for energetic effort and there is just as importantly a time for calm thought. Make it a priority to quiet your mind and slow down, do this and you will enhance your ability to access your imagination and intuition. You will have far more insights and breakthrough ideas when you quieten you mind.

After a period of intense work on a difficult problem, make a point of getting away from your desk. Take a short walk, listen to music or do whatever relaxes you and takes your mind off work. This quiet space allows great ideas to bubble up from the intelligence of your unconscious. However, if you never pause to slow down you will never give that part of your mind the opportunity to communicate with you.

3 Observe Systems

No problem occurs in isolation. You may be looking at the wrong problem and you be unaware of the true nature of the problem you are attempting to solve. The only way to get past this potential road block is to view the world in terms of systems. See all activities and events as a sequence of interconnected inputs and outputs.

A systems perspective enables you to identify the causes of the problem and the multiple consequences of the problem. As soon as you have a big picture view of the issues at hand you are in a better position to approach the problem from a number of different angles.

You may then find the problem was not properly defined. Correct problem definition will take you 80% of the way to a solution.

4 Intense Focus

Our minds have tremendous power to solve even the most difficult problems but we ignore this capability and often only use it when faced with issues that threaten our survival. Instead we ponder an issue for a few minutes here and there without ever objectively and rationally facing the matter head on.

To access more of your intelligence you must put yourself under pressure to come up with solutions. The best way to do this is to set aside at least 30 minutes, 60 minutes is even better, to focus all of your attention on one issue. Get a pen and paper and write down every single idea, good or bad, that comes to mind when you ask yourself: how can I solve this problem?

This sounds simple but most people will not do it because it takes a lot of effort once you get to the 5 minute mark. The few who commit to this exercise will notice they often come up with some good ideas and typically hours later or even the next day a great idea pops up seemingly from nowhere. Put your mind under pressure to solve a difficult problem and you’ll be surprised by how much more creative and resourceful you really are.

5 Thinking Time

We live in a culture of constant stimulation, activity and demands on our time from other people. This has reduced many ambitious people to a state of overwhelm with an inability to focus for long periods of time and a tendency to look for quick solutions. If you find that days and weeks pass you by and leave you wondering what you really got done then you are too busy.

Schedule time to think each day, uninterrupted time, to consider what you are doing and why you are doing it. Making time to slow down and review what’s working and what’s not working is a great way to anticipate future problems and solve current problems with apparently obvious solutions you never would have spotted unless you paused to think more deeply.

The wealth of a nation comes down to the productivity of its people not its natural resources because it’s our collective intelligence that makes the biggest difference to the economy. And unless we prioritize time to think deeply we will never access our untapped intelligence and actualize our potential to do great work and solve hard problems.

6 Study Innovation

One of the best ways to go from stuck to inspired is to look at innovation outside your industry. Make a point of following innovations outside your field and you’ll be reminded that there are always new and better ways to get things done while also finding the inspiration to do the same yourself. Inspiration backed by the urgent need to solve a problem is a force that can overcome all obstacles.

When you’re learning about innovation, breakthroughs and remarkable people do so with the filter: how can I use this insight to solve my problem? An open minded person will spot new ideas that can be applied in his field and a person with an open mind and the courage to try new ideas will usually outperform someone who lacks imagination and always follows the norms of his own industry.

7 Study Solutions

We often wrongly assume that no other person has had to contend with the specific problem we are stuck with. This is often faulty thinking that stops us from looking for an existing solution. Many problems look unique until you dig more deeply and discover the root cause. It is only then you can see that many other people have already solved the very problem you are dealing with.

How do you manage inventory of computer chips that quickly become superseded by newer and faster chips? Ask supermarket executives who manage billion dollar enterprises of perishable food. How do you make a consumer electronic product a “must have” item? Hire a top marketing executive from the world of luxury fashion.

In the case of these two examples the underlying conditions mean that the problems have already been solved in another industry even though on the surface they look like unique problems.

It’s very likely that someone has already solved the problems you deal with in your business. Until you accept that possibility you will not find those proven solutions.

8 Optimize Concentration

Good thinking requires focus, concentration and high levels of energy. This becomes almost impossible if you drag yourself through the day on minimal sleep, a poor diet and infrequent exercise. Health and well being are the drivers of effective thinking and world class problem solving. You must give your brain the fuel it needs to perform at its best.

Make a point of eating for energy not pleasure during the working day. Pay attention to the food and drink choices that rob you of energy and gradually upgrade to options that give you the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time.

And take at least 30 minutes a day to exercise doing something you enjoy. Your workout can coincide with listening to business news or catching up on email so it’s not extra time you need to find in your day. Even a little daily but enjoyable exercise coupled with a good nights sleep can transform your ability to think clearly all day long in the office.

9 Read Fiction

Becoming a better problem solver isn’t all about effort and hard work there are a number of fun activities that can help a lot. One of those is reading great fiction. Read the very best fiction of the genres you enjoy and you’ll experience the hero’s journey in entertaining ways that can inspire you to prevail and overcome any obstacle.

Fiction leaves an impression on your unconscious mind and reminds you that you are more capable than you give yourself credit for. Good stories are all about problem solving so reading them is another way to learn flexibility, creativity and inner strength in the face of major challenges.

While many business people will choose non fiction before fiction it’s worth experimenting too see if you become more creative and more resourceful as a result of reading fiction. It’s also another way to relax and take your mind off work so that your unconscious mind can process the issues of the day to generate insights and solutions.

10 Watch TV Dramas

If you enjoy watching TV to unwind at the end of the day this can be a great way to enhance your problem solving skills. Instead of watching whatever happens to be on the schedule make a point of choosing great dramas to watch. Why watch poor or average programming when with a little planning you can find and watch great entertainment instead? There are so many tv shows and movies that you will never have time to watch them all so decide to be more discerning and only watch the very best shows.

When you watch good drama you’ll absorb how the protagonist achieves his goal despite one problem after the next to overcome. Like reading, these shows entertain while also teaching you principles and outlooks that will improve your problem solving skills.

The key is to only watch the very best shows. Check ratings at review sites and don’t waste your valuable evenings watching anything other than the very best programming.

These 10 ways to improve your business problem solving skills compliment each other. The more of these tactics you use the sooner you’ll see a big improvement in your ability to come up with great solutions when the pressure is on. Ignore the common tendency to say: “I’ve heard all of this before”. And stack all 10 approaches to see the compounding power of simultaneously using all of these proven approaches.

Become a better business problem solver and you’ll be more successful. It’s no mystery how to do this but the decision is yours to work on the fundamentals that lead to success.

Photo by Eli Christman