Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Six New Steps to Better Problem Solving (or “Uneducating the Masses”)

(Ed's Note: Traveling for the next couple of days, so this is going to serve as Wednesday's post.  Enjoy! -D.J.)

Traveling around Australia for a bit has given me a renewed appreciation for some of the “little things” you encounter in the good ole' U.S. of A. Of course, it's also given me insight into how we could be doing a lot of things better. Combined with my well-known proclivity toward http://djgelner.blogspot.com/2011/03/are-you-bitcher-or-doer.html, I figured that I would try to write a series on fixing some of the biggest problems with our society by proposing specific solutions to problems. The first topic on the list: (somewhat fittingly) Solving Problems.

My travels have allowed me to read a ton of books. It feels good to get back in the habit of reading for pleasure (a lot) as opposed to reading some indemnification agreement or horribly dry legal opinion. One of the books I've been working through is Seth Godin's Linchpin. One of Godin's central theses is that in the new economy, replaceable workers with few skills are going to become obsolete. To become a true star (and to enjoy what you're doing), you have to think differently and become what he calls a “linchpin”--that person who is indispensable to an organization. These people should embrace their creativity and look for solutions to problems as opposed to following orders.

I couldn't agree with Seth more. He encapsulated what I hated about my old job the most—the inability to apply creative solutions to problems. Blame the profession or billable hour, but being a lawyer simply is not conducive to being a creative thinker, unless your idea of thinking creatively is thinking “how to fuck over the other side” the most, or how to find a loophole buried in hundreds of pages of contracts or regulations. It can be mildly entertaining at first, but down the road, it becomes awfully tedious.

Unfortunately, our current educational system plays right into this--it's designed to feed the industrial machine with low-skilled, replaceable workers who show up on time, do their job without much thought, and leave. This is great if you're making cars in Detroit in the 20s. It's not so great if your business needs to identify a consumer need and launch a new product, or connect with that one person or company that could put you over the top.

After a recent outburst of creativity on my flight to Cairns, I put pen to paper and outlined how I go about solving problems. I don't have a clever acronym for it...yet...but there are basically six steps that I have identified that are crucial to solving problems effectively. Once you can master these steps, internalize them, and get to the point where you don't feel like an idiot in going through them, you should be well on your way to becoming one of Godin's Linchpins.

  1. Identify a Problem. This can be more focused (how do I get five new accounts?) or broader (how do we end poverty?). At this point, the scope doesn't matter; just think of something that is currently a problem that, if solved, would benefit yourself or others.

  1. Brainstorm Potential Solutions. Nothing is out-of-bounds here, with the possible exception of something completely morally-reprehensible. It doesn't matter how you do it—I prefer “mind mapping,” but others like outlining, and others still prefer drawing or even other methods that no one else has thought of yet. The important thing is that the method works for you, and you start putting stuff down on paper.

  1. Discuss/Evaluate. A crucial step in the new economy. Hopefully, you have people that you can bounce ideas off of that won't just tell you, “well, I don't know...we've never done it like THAT before...”, or the similarly-frequent “that idea is stupid.” If not, you can go ahead and evaluate your various options yourself. Still, I've found it much better to collaborate with a trusted team than to try to go it alone if you have the option on larger projects; as you will see shortly, 90%+ of the problems we deal with on a day-to-day basis generally don't require collaboration.

  1. Revisit Your List of Solutions. Which ones can you throw out? Which ones have real potential? Go through and be ruthless based on your evaluation stage. Keep the ones you cut—this isn't a “goodbye forever” to those, just, “so long for now.”

  1. Implement the “Best” Solution. Go through and try whatever you think the “best” solution is. It doesn't matter if it's the “right” solution—just get out there and try something, damn it!

  1. Re-evaluate. Ask yourself, “is this working? Even if so, how can I improve it?” Problem-solving is a process to be embraced. If you fail, so what? People think that failure is far worse than it actually is. Try failing a few times and pulling yourself back up again—not so tough, is it? There's always a way to jump back on the horse.

Though I've found that this is generally a great process for solving problems, it does you no good until you can internalize it and go through the options in your head as quickly as possible. It's fine to write things out for big projects, or the first few times you go through the process, but you don't want to be the asshole at Denny's paralyzed by the “regular or decaf?” question from the waitress. Going through this process in your day-to-day life should take maybe five to ten seconds for most things.

Another piece of advice: if there's a shortcut available, feel free to use it. If there's a person readily available who clearly has more information than you with regards to the problem, just ask. 90% of problems could be solved by asking someone who is more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, these days it's difficult to find more knowledgeable people even at Best Buy, so a better way may be to research a bit online or “crowdsource” the solution via twitter. At the end of the day, though, the stockboy in the grocery store usually knows where the tomato sauce is.

Additionally, you can't “crowdsource” the solution to everything. The people that make themselves truly valuable are the creators of entirely new solutions to either common or intrinsically valuable problems. You might think that these people are just flat-out geniuses, and, to be fair, a good number of them probably are. But if you internalize this framework, make it second nature, and apply it to whatever problems you come across, I think you'll find that you free up your mind to be more creative and think of your own unique solutions to problems. Though I can't give you the actual solutions themselves, hopefully I've provided a little insight into a process that should make doing so easier.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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