Being good at solving problems is one of the most valuable skills you can build.
It helps you think through and make good decisions in your life. You can help friends with their problems. You’ll also be able to help companies save a lot of time and money – making you very valuable to them.
But, how do you get good at solving problems?
That’s something I’ve always struggled to give advice on. I like to think I’m a good problem solver. But, I haven’t been able to think about it in a systematic way that can lead to pragmatic advice – until recently.
There are two parts to it – how to solve a problem and how to get good at it.
Let’s take the how first. Solving a problem seems to go through three main phases:
How to solve a problem
1. Becoming aware of a problem
This is your starting point. You become aware of a problem through directly experiencing one, or seeing others struggle with one.
You’ll likely start to have some ideas for what’s causing the problem, and how to solve it. Almost always, you’ll be tempted to act fast. But, one of the most common mistakes is to come to a conclusion too quickly. This is what causes people to solve symptoms, instead of getting to the root causes of a problem. Don’t do that. Discipline and patience are key for this stage.
Push away the noise and look at the situation calmly. Sit back and organise your ideas for what the problem is, what is causing it and how you might solve it. You’ll have specific ideas, as well as some areas that need exploring further. A list of people you want to speak with. Research you need to do. Start to organise your ideas and pull together a high level plan of how you intend to dig in further.
2. Working through the problem
This is where the real work gets done.
Start talking to people. Look at things more deeply. Do any research that’s needed. Start working it all out.
The biggest thing to remember at this stage is that you have to keep an open mind. This quote by Paul Graham sums it up well:
“expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong”
He was talking about writing (which lets face it – is problem solving), but the same applies for problem solving. It’s natural to have an early instinct for what the root cause is and how to solve it. In fact, the better you get at solving problems, the easier it is to see what’s happening. That’s fine, and your instincts might be right. But, you want to avoid simply building a case around your instincts. Try and keep your early instinct to one side and let things unfold how they need to.
I’ll warn you now, working through a problem can be painstaking and frustrating work. You will find yourself lost at some points, wondering if you can ever bring things to a close. Sometimes you’ll question whether you can get everyone onto the same page for what is wrong. It can be a messy process. But, don’t give up. Push through it.
Eventually, some themes will start to stand out. The root causes will become clearer. You’ll also start to see which things are only symptoms. You’ll have specific ideas for solutions. Let these ideas unfold and slowly start to organise your ideas. I find it useful to start writing a document so you can lay them out and organise them well.
Keep talking to people as your clarity builds. If you’re on the right track, this will all start resonating with people in your discussions.
At some point, you’ll experience a moment of clarity where everything will start to feel directionally correct.
3. Strip it back and find elegance
You should now have a strong sense of the root causes, solutions and have identified what are only symptoms. Almost always, what you have is too complicated.
You now have to fight to strip it back to something which is simple and elegant. It’s the 80/20 principle. That is, 80% of results are driven by 20% of effort.
Perhaps you have three root causes, but it’s two – or even just one, that really counts. Perhaps you have five different solutions to a root cause, but two of them squarely solve it. The other three are icing on the cake and will probably distract from the two that really count.
Simplify. Strip back. Edit. You want to finally look at what you have and be proud of how simple and elegant it is – almost a work of art.
Ideally you’ll end up with four things:
- succinct root cause(s)
- clear solution(s) to the root causes
- symptoms / other considerations & notes
The first three are obvious. It’s worth giving a bit of context for why you should also have some thoughts around symptoms and other considerations. Solving a problem is never as clean as identifying the root cause and solution, and then everyone agrees. There are often a bunch of symptoms which people are convinced are the actual root cause. In some cases, there are also other root causes which are tangential. You should acknowledge these if you want others to accept your root cause analysis.
Below is a slide I actually used as part of a presentation to an Executive team:
I covered the root causes and solutions first, and then finished with symptoms and other problems to be aware of. BUT, with a clear warning that they should not fall into the trap of becoming distracted by them. If you do this right, you’ll find people will be able to compartmentalise these from the real root causes. It will also strengthen the buy in for your your root cause analysis.
How to get good at solving problems
How to solve a problem is one thing, but how do you actually get good at it?
The answer is straight forward. You have to get the reps in. Like everything in life you want to be good at – you have to repeatedly practice it. There are no short cuts or hacks.
The more you expose yourself to hard problem solving, the better you will get at it. Force yourself to go through the three phases, time and time again. Eventually, it will feel the natural way of going about things.
Something I only realised in writing this article is that my time at Jagex was a university in problem solving. I was just starting my career and was thrown entirely into the deep end. I was helping to run a game and company that was in the beginning stages of exponential growth. Everything I was doing was for the first time. I was constantly solving problems around people and processes. I made lots of mistakes, but gradually began to get very good at solving problems. Jagex forced me to get the reps in.
What if you don’t get a lot of hard problems in your life or work? Well, I don’t think that’s true for most people. Problems are all around us, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You simply have to notice them.
Here are some examples of how to see more problem solving in your life:
- Whatever you’re trying to do in your life, make an effort to explore it deeply. Don’t be lazy and stay at the surface level. For example, perhaps you’re wondering about how you can eat healthier? Make it your mission to build a real point of view. Follow lots of experts, listen to podcasts and read many articles. Drag out the common themes and put together a first version of something to try that’s built around a solid amount of research.
- Do you have something you need to explain to someone? Instead of doing it on the fly, sit down and write it out. Think through how you want to say it – exactly what, in what order, what do you want to finish with?
- Do you have an important email to send? Don’t just write it and send it. Write a first draft. Leave it a day. Come back to it and re-write it. Edit it down to something that you’re really proud of. Share it with some colleagues and ask for their feedback. Edit again, based on the feedback. Really make it the best it can be.
- If you need to buy something, don’t make a surface level buying decision. Dig deep and research it. Look at all the options. Whittle it down into a well researched decision. My friend Barry finds it amusing how long it takes me to make a buying decision. That’s because I treat it like I’m solving a problem.
- Have a side project. It’ll force you to explore and decide all types of things.
- Start writing and sharing your ideas in public – it’s a brilliant way to build a point of view on something. It forces you to think, research, organise your ideas and edit them back to something which is elegant.
- Invest. If you don’t think deeply around your strategy for investing, you’ll become unstuck quickly.
If you can stay aware of the three phases and force yourself through them enough times, you WILL get good at solving problems. And soon enough, it becomes the natural way of thinking about things and making decisions.
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