A new way to look at round pegs

Small business, at its simplest form is about being able to manage and solve problems for people, just in time.

So why do many business owners say they regularly struggle to diagnose business problems correctly?

What if the problem they’re solving is the wrong one?

And what’s the long term outcome when you’re constantly pouring your limited time, focus and resources, into the wrong cup?

In this article:

Understanding context changes everything

An issue is never fully understood if we’re not aware of its context and the environment that actually created it.

As business owners we all usually end up finding what we set out to find and often only to discover, too late, we’re digging deeper into a problem we’ve already decided to find, rather than arriving at a separate diagnosis that can be more helpful.

How can small business owners improve their day-to-day problem-solving skills?

It starts with improving our pre-problem solving skills and leveraging the additional insights from better understanding their context. Being able to accurately describe a problem in the right way can often produce 90% of its solution. And at other times being able to talk through the origin of a problem first, can be more helpful than solving it.

Pre-problem solving - the skill that rules them all

Like first sharpening a saw before using it to cut down a tree, using pre-problem solving skills first to understand better how a problem is best described, or framed, actually accelerates the solution. A properly framed problem better identifies the issues to be addressed. It also identifies the time and resources needed. And it ensures the new solution process is safely pointed in the right direction.

When working with a problem that’s not first accurately framed, you can end up creating a great solution for the wrong problem.

Why the default Whack-A-Mole approach to solving problems fails small business

Sadly the adage is true; ‘If all you have is a hammer, you will probably see everything as a nail’.

By default, when fixing problems, we all fall prey to simply extending what we already know and expect. It’s unusual to routinely push out into the unknown searching for a new result to a new problem; especially where we don’t yet have any history, insights or capabilities in that new zone. This means we can end up solving the wrong problem.

Today’s commercial advantage is in our ability to recognise and remove blocks and problems before they arise in the customer’s experience – rather than getting lost in reactively patching holes after they appear.

The intriguing problem of Business Plan Guilt

Nothing triggers guilt and self-loathing in a small business owner more than business plan guilt. (A trait no doubt leveraged by those proposing a costly solution for this pesky small business malaise).

As I work with many small business owners and their families, I’m astounded how many feel the need to apologize for not, ‘having a business plan’, not ‘updating a business plan’ or not ‘having a plan that doesn’t look professional enough’ (whatever that looks like).

  • I’ve been to networking meetings and watched a business plan salesperson pushing their weight around and leading with the question, ‘So do you have a professional business plan in place?’
  • In an effort to avoid a heated exchange, I’ve replied, ‘Yes thank you. I’ve walked away to seek refuge at the free dessert table, only to have them follow me around and later creepily whisper in my ear, ‘… but when did you last update it?’

I’ve lost count of how many checklist-based-business-coaches insist on trying to sell me (or my business clients).

They try to sell a 150-page business plan template (with optional pivot tables and checklists) suggesting, it’s akin to the universal panacea (able to cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely), and may even be able to turn lead into gold.

This one-trick pony approach, perhaps better framed as a one-cookie-cutter approach, personifies the caution, ‘prescription without proper diagnosis is usually malpractice’.

Enter the cult of the business checklist

Simple business checklists are admittedly useful for transactional issues and checking lists. But they’re also limited in their ability to properly diagnose and solve the very personalised problems all small businesses face.

  • A pilot uses a pre-flight checklist to focus their thinking and confirm they’ve not missed key flight requirements.
  • But after takeoff, the checklist doesn’t fly the plane – or set its course or respond to turbulence (or, worst still when 'the hosties run outta coffee').

What was initially designed as a guide to improve business processes by ensuring no important tasks are forgotten, has metastasized. It has grown into a prescriptive unquestionable force, (usually sold as a business-by-checklists-in-a-box approach). A force requiring little to no further application of business thinking.

Any call for them to account for their apparent lack of business acumen and depth is akin to questioning the wholesomeness of motherhood, apple pie, and all that is holy.

Paralysis through checklist analysis

Part of the reason people tend to over-engineer the diagnostic checklist process is they don’t have a clear framework on how to pre-problem solve.

Many people looking for a shortcut tick-it-off-the-list-and-move-on checklist approach never realise by taking a checklist approach to problem diagnosis, can actually stop them from thinking about the issues at hand.

A good framework seeks to inform your thinking, not replace it.

So how do you start pre-problem solving?

Whether you’re framing a problem yourself or with team members, here’s a framework. It will help you better appreciate the context and complexity of a problem.

Individual pre-problem solving skills

Pre-meeting, get your individual team members to anonymously commit to writing:

  • what their definition of the problem is, and
  • what the category of problem is, e.g., HR, UX design, supplier, quality control, resource allocation etc.

This will help you see not everyone sees the problem in the same way – if at all.

Creative solutions nearly always come from alternative definitions to your problem.

Team meeting pre-problem solving skills

When starting a discussion about a problem with your team, be very clear upfront that your expectations are for input rather than answers.

What hinders:

  • To berate your team (or yourself) and barking at team members for solutions and innovation upon demand, is like declaring the floggings will continue until morale improves. It doesn’t work. It only triggers the team's stress responses that block creativity and access to long-term memory function.
  • Using a checklist for problem diagnosis tends to discourage actual thinking about its context.

What helps:

  • Bring an outsider into the conversation to trigger fresh discussions. The reality is if managers try to imagine a customer's perspective themselves, they typically get it wrong.
  • Acknowledge we all have a bias to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
  • Acknowledge some problems are too large to be addressed over a broken day of interruption. These problems are deserving of a full and proper airing.
  • Recall a time when the problem didn’t occur and see what was different then.

Most people are only creative to the limits required by their job description because they’re disengaged from their team or occupation. This means the culture you design and encourage in your small business will usually dictate whether, and to the degree, you gain access to the diversity of thinking and insights you’ll need to outthink your competition.

The last word

Don’t waste time-solving the wrong problem. Spend the time pre-problem solving and better defining the problem you want to address and the context which seemed to produce it.

And in so doing, you may even find a far better and more interesting problem worth solving.

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