Problem solving is a hot topic in the world of work, all the way from entry-level to the C-suite. Recruiters polled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranked problem-solving as one of the two most desirable skills for college grads — along with the ability to work in a team. A recent article on CEOs in Harvard Business Review noted that there’s a constant demand for “fixers” who can tackle the hardest problems. But as problem solving expert and business leader Nat Greene writes in Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April, 2017) real problem solving is a rarity. Many of us think we’re rolling up our sleeves to solve a problem, when in fact we’re just fumbling along in the dark. We don’t have the discipline, focus, or skills to tackle anything but the simplest hiccups, and the only reason we hit upon a solution is because there are so few possible options to begin with.
Greene has spent a long career studying the top problem solvers on the planet, and has a far deeper understanding of why some of us fail at fixing while others succeed. As the head of a firm that takes on massively complex problems for global firms in a range of fields, he’s a leading practitioner of his own effective methods. In other words, this is not a theoretical look: it’s a practical workshop on paper.
In Stop Guessing, Greene pulls the curtain back to reveal that many of the actions we take to tackle a problem — like brainstorming — are nothing more than guesses in fancier clothing. Drilling down, mapping ideas on a whiteboard, hypothesizing, speculating — these, too, are just fancy ways to dress up guesswork. They may make us feel like we’re getting something done, but we’re not.
When we can’t really solve a problem, Greene notes, we also tend to construct elaborate workarounds, or just accept the dysfunction and live with it. But living with a problem just means the problem wins — and it may cost more and more in the long run. Greene’s book is filled with examples of companies that did just that — until his team came in and the real work began. Often, the shift to a methodical approach sparks an employee to come forward and start asking real questions.
There are many inspiring tales throughout, such as production line workers who suddenly realize there’s no reason their machinery couldn’t run a hair faster, or junior engineers who refuse to take no for an answer. To truly solve a problem takes a scientific, fact-based approach that has nothing to do with guessing or accepting the status quo. But it also has to do with asking questions (even dumb ones), looking outside the box, and staying brave.
What make this book so useful are its meticulous explanations of each problem-solving behavior, and vivid examples of those behaviors in action. But there’s also a palpable enthusiasm and passion on every page — a sense that elite problem solvers are made, not born, and that each and every one of us can become one. It’s empowering to read that there’s no such thing as a stupid question — great problem solvers ask a lot of questions.
It’s liberating to realize that complicated problems don’t necessitate complicated solutions, despite how reluctant we are to embrace simple fixes that don’t satisfy us with a big, complicated payback. And instead of bending paper clips at our desks as we stare at spreadsheets, Greene encourages us to get out of the office, get out on the floor, and take a hands-on, senses-engaged approach. “Smell the problem,” he writes.
One gets the impression that somewhere in the beginning of Greene’s highly successful career he may have encountered that famous Einstein quote: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Many of these nine problem solving behaviors celebrate that mix of open-mindedness and real science that’s behind some of our most remarkable innovations. And while we may not all be geniuses, this book can make us far more effective at whatever it is that we do. Work, and life, are filled with problems. If we all started thinking and stopped guessing, imagine how much better the world could be.
Learn more about Nat Greene and his book — and take a quiz to find out what kind of a problem solver you are — at Stop Guessing Book.com