Perhaps sparked by the recent pandemic, I’m seeing a new era of the entrepreneur, with startups springing up all around. Based on my own mentoring and investing experience, the best entrepreneurs are pragmatic problem solvers. They have an uncanny ability to find elegant, easy, and fast solutions to pain points in the marketplace, as well as their own challenges.
The real question is whether problem solving is a skill you have to be born with, or is there any hope for the rest of us to become successful entrepreneurs. After some review of available resources, I’m convinced that problem solving is a learnable trait, rather than just a birthright.
For example, I remember a classic book by Penina Rybak, “The NICE Reboot,” that does a great job of outlining problem-solving steps, honed from working with special needs youngsters. While her book is aimed primarily at aspiring female entrepreneurs, my adaptation of the five steps of her problem-solving hierarchy should work equally well for entrepreneurs of any gender:
- Acknowledge that a problem exists, and react appropriately. Problems will occur in every startup, simply because you are stepping into uncharted territory. Good entrepreneurs anticipate these, and celebrate each resolution as a positive step toward success, rather than responding with anger and frustration and counting failures.
- Verbalize the problem to fully understand it and why it’s occurring. Every business problem has a context that is critical, and it’s easy to be too close to see the forest for the trees. If you can explain the problem to a mentor, or even write it down, you will more likely get to the root cause quickly, and avoid emotional and blame-infused responses.
- Explore solutions, outcomes, and options calmly. You can’t think clearly while riding high on emotions, so calm down first. Then outline the possible outcomes and alternatives. Good problem solving requires making informed decisions, relying on logic. This is where I say “two heads are better than one.” Work with a partner you can trust.
- Use negotiation to come to an agreement or compromise. Whether you are charting new territory for pricing models or technology, there is rarely a perfect solution. Every approach is a compromise between cost, time, and return, so forget your perfectionist tendencies. Listen to your customers to arrive at acceptable and marketable solutions.
- Resolve conflict, accept outcomes, and rebuild communications. In startups, conflict is constructive in steering through the maze of innovation that is part of every successful business. Don’t let it make your startup dysfunctional in resolving future challenges. Real entrepreneurs always look ahead and learn from problems resolved.
The best way for a first-time entrepreneur to learn problem solving is to find a partner who has “been there and done that.” A good alternative is to enlist the help of a business mentor you can trust. The best mentor is sensitive, knowledgeable across a broad spectrum, but is probably not your best friend. A mentor has to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. When the message is the same from both, you don’t need the mentor anymore.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most difficult traits to overcome for effective problem solving is perfectionism. A few years ago, Amanda Neville wrote an incisive article for Forbes online entitled “Perfectionism is the Enemy of Everything.” In it, she lists three types of perfectionism that are equally toxic to entrepreneurs and mentors:
- Self-oriented perfectionism, in which individuals impose high standards on themselves.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism, where individuals feel that others expect them to be perfect.
- Other-oriented perfectionism, in which individuals place high standards on others.
With all these incentives, maybe it’s time for you to reboot your career and join the new era of the entrepreneur. Problem solving may be a required skill, but it’s definitely one that can be learned, and perfectionism can be un-learned, independent of your IQ or book smarts (there may even be an inverse relationship here).
The best part of the entrepreneur problem-solving lifestyle is that it can bring satisfaction and happiness to your work. According to a summary of some classic research, those running their own businesses are happier and healthier than employees, regardless of how much money they make. As I have said many times, life is too short to go to work unhappy every day.