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A Q&A on how to really solve a problem with Nat Greene, the author of a powerful new book, 'Stop Guessing: the 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers.'

Interview with Nat Greene, Author of ‘Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers’

I had the chance to talk problems and solutions with Nat Greene, the author of the new book, Stop Guessing: the 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers. As a global problem solving expert, Greene has been involved in finding the best ways to fix the worst problems — in business, industry, and all sorts of organizations. He’s also spent decades studying what great problem solvers do. What’s the secret? According to Greene, we have to stop pretending we know more than we do, give up guessing, and use our noses.

What prompted you to write this book?  

I’m truly frustrated with the state of problem-solving in the world, from business to politics. We waste so much time, money, and frustration on bad solutions. I hate that good people have to put up with all that. My career has been spent working on some big, valuable problems with some of the most skilled problem solvers I can imagine, but I want everyone to be able to problem solve — in their personal lives and for society at large. We’d all be much better off.

You’ve probably heard this question before, but what’s wrong with guessing?  

Nothing — millions of people guess, and occasionally some progress happens. With innovation, you’re venturing into the unknown to come up with something truly novel. It’s different challenge than solving a hard problem in business operations or fixing a leaky pipe at home.

Guessing or intuition can work for very simple problems, which is why people sometimes feel that’s an effective approach. But when you face a harder problem and need to make progress quickly with limited resources, guessing becomes a waste of time.

Can you explain what it means to smell the problem?

Smelling the problem is about using all your senses to understand the facts, which helps with understanding the problem itself. Many people don’t do this: some are intimidated, or impatient — they want to take “action” now. So they brainstorm some ideas and try them out. This may feel more productive than being an investigator and collecting observations and data about the nature of the failure. But skipping ahead to conjure up a root cause or solution in a conference room will end up being a complete waste of time — because you still don’t understand the problem.

Anyone who’s led a team has faced that inevitable brainstorming session that veers far off course. How do you steer everyone back to the central issue?

I would suggest people just avoid brainstorming in the first place. If you have to do it, then limit the number of people participating. There is evidence that you are much better served by having people think about possible solutions independently, and then share them together.

Sometimes people can’t help wanting to guess, and you may need to get past that first before you can make methodical progress on a hard problem. So have people write down their best idea, seal it in an envelope, and stick it in a jar. Everyone can have fun looking at these later. It can be a great teaching moment: often, nobody guessed the true root cause. Or if they did, they’ll find they didn’t have the information at the beginning to prove they guessed correctly — so there would have been no way to sort out the correct guess from the rest.

Why are some people convinced that complicated problems require equally complicated solutions? 

Perhaps because it’s difficult to accept failure in general: If you face a problem without the skill or commitment to resolve it, it may be comforting to make up a story that it’s incredibly complex to solve.

Another reason is politics: Say your company has been plagued by a costly, ongoing problem for years. Then someone walks in and says, “We found the problem! It was a loose bolt!” People could absolutely lose their lids, and start looking for who to blame. Safer just to say, “Well, we need something very expensive to fix very very difficult problem,” and have people nod their heads thinking everyone did a good job. But leaders need to recognize and reward simple solutions as results of great problem solving.

When a team is tackling a problem, it does seem like the most powerful people in the room dominate the process. Any advice on how to making sure everyone gets heard?

First, stop guessing. There’s no way to sort through different guesses except for popularity or power. The better option is to methodically approach the problem in a structured, focused way with the facts in hand. Regardless of who you are, you’ll be most effective at winning people over when you have the evidence on your side. If you can show the facts and tell a strong story about how they identify the root cause, you’ll be heard. Better yet, you’ll actually deliver a winning solution.

You talk about the need to find the root cause in order to solve a problem for good. What happens if you can’t, and have to engineer some kind of fix anyway? Is there any way to temporarily but effectively solve a problem?

Sure: You can put in a temporary workaround (let’s not call it a fix) to reduce losses. But you will need to get back to properly solving the problem.

I find that superficial workarounds soon become the permanent feature. For instance: perhaps a part of a production process jams up, or you can’t automatically reconcile some data when closing the books each month. The temporary workaround is to bring in extra labor to get the job done. But a year later those people are still there, the original problem is still happening, and everyone has forgotten about it. Permanent waste has been built in.

Every problem has a root cause: that’s just the nature of reality. If you don’t have the skills in your organization to find it, you’ll need to rent some great problem solvers, get some training, or keep practicing on easier problems (with great mentoring) to attain the skillset you need to win.

As a global problem solving expert, what’s the hardest problem you’ve ever faced?

Of course, I can’t talk about my clients, but the most embarrassing problems I face may be in my own household. It’s like that story of the shoemaker’s children, running around with no shoes. I find corporations far easier to work with.

Learn more about Nat Greene and Stop Guessing at www.stopguessingbook.com


About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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