Have you ever had a business problem that stopped you dead? One minute you are going along fine, the next minute you are stuck, not sure how to move forward. I know I have.


That’s why last week, Rick Wolfe of Poststone Corporation and I met with a group of successful business owners to discuss how to problem-solve in situations where you are slowed considerably or stopped completely.


We were from all types of businesses and had different amounts of experience, but all run successful businesses.


My view going into the discussion was not that successful entrepreneurs have fewer problems or different problems, it’s just that they cope better with problems and don’t allow them to stop their forward momentum.


There was a large amount of similarity in how each person went about problem solving. Many of the ideas discussed are worth sharing with you here.


Three things emerged for me from the discussion:

  • Effective problem-solvers relentlessly look for the right or a better question to answer.
  • Effective problem-solvers take action early and decisively, mostly with little concern over making the wrong decision
  • These business builders tend to follow their gut.

The Search For Better Questions


To paraphrase a much longer Einstein quote; “There is no secret in the universe that will not yield its answers to a better line of questioning.


The first practice is that of re-framing the question. Asking a question one way only yields one set of answers, but by reframing the question, all of a sudden new possibilities are seen. The best problem solvers seem to do this continuously. And one way to do this is to ask yourself; “What’s the question behind the question?” Other questions you can ask yourself are: “What’s the real question or what’s the true question?


If you can get to a question with a yes or no answer, then you have probably gotten to the essence of your question and your decision becomes easier.


Another suggestion is to ask yourself the “5 whys” to help you understand your motives and desired outcomes. As an example, imagine you find sales in your business falling despite an increased focus and spending on marketing. You might ask yourself the following questions:


  • Why is this happening? Because the market is becoming immune to traditional approaches.
  • Why is the market becoming immune to traditional approaches? Because everyone in our industry is doing things in the same way and so in the customers’ view we are all undifferentiated.
  • Why is everyone marketing the same way? Because there is no one to challenge the thinking and no fresh blood is being brought in?
  • Why is no fresh blood being brought in? We have not seen the need previously.
  • Why have we not seen the need? Because business has been good and we have all been comfortable, fat and happy?

This line of questioning brings you to a different level of understanding than your first question. If you keep going you will find further answers.


Taking Action Early and Decisively


“Why do some problems paralyze us? Some people find that until they can see the whole situation, they tend to sit on the problem and do nothing. This can mean no movement until the way forward is clear. If the problem is complex, there can be a long time of inaction on something that needs immediate attention. In some cases inaction can mean the difference between success and failure. The key is to begin an action.


What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it! / Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Wolfgang von Goethe


A prevailing point of view among our decisive business owners was that sometimes it is much better to make a wrong decision now, than to make the right decision later. The key is to get moving. This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom; collecting your facts first before making a decision. Perhaps this is one of the distinguishing features of successful business owners.


When you can’t see the full picture, a solution to get yourself moving is to ask : “What is the smallest thing I can do to move this situation forward?” This question gets you moving, and movement creates results.


The key is to go at the right pace. One participant suggested that this is like white-water kayaking. I am not a kayaker, but in this sport, apparently you never go faster than the current when you are running rapids.


Skim through the document and read the subheads you’ve used in the copy. Not all of them have to sell, sell, sell. But it’s a mistake for none of them to do so. You need the subheads to keep hooking the gaze of the page skimmer, which is what most people do when they both read online and read the printed page of, say, a direct mail package. The subheads are there to pull the reader back in. Very well crafted subheads even offer a kind of leading structure, a path, the reader will want to follow.


Follow Your Gut


While many problem solvers like to get input from peers and specialists, at the end of the day, they know it is up to them and gut feel decides a lot of tough alternatives.


One way to listen to your gut, even if you think you don’t know the answer, is to do the traditional coin flip and suggest to yourself; “Heads I do, Tails I don’t.” Notice your immediate reaction when you see the result. If your immediate reaction is disappointment, you know the other route is favoured by your gut. Go with what you favour, you are less likely to be wrong.


  • Many of the participants found it helps to write down the answers to your questions or alternatives you may want to consider.
  • Draw your challenge using a simple diagram connecting all of the elements. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t understand it well enough yet.
  • Asses the risk. Ask yourself what’s the difference between doing and not doing. Often you will find the negative consequences of not taking action, greater than the negative consequence of taking the wrong action

Following these suggestions may improve your problem solving ability, but remember that your best ideas don’t come unless there is challenge, that may mean you won’t get the right answer the first time. But if you keep going at it, you probably will and you will have learned a whole lot along the way.