Be an ‘exceptionally’ good problem solver

Some time back I read this essay by Paul Graham – Be Relentlessly Resourceful . The essay attempts to answer a very fundamental question –  “Which is the most important quality / skill you should have as a startup founder”.  Like all essays by PG it is a very insightful piece, but it felt like something was missing, the answer was not complete.

I tried to pin point the missing part.  But even after thinking hard, I was stuck and wasn’t able to figure out what was missing.  So I let it go from my conscious mind & assigned the task to my unconscious mind, so that if there is a good answer it will bubble up.  Here is my post on the same – hope you will enjoy it.

Problem solving is the single most important skill you should have as an entrepreneur or a start-up founder

Just like we break down materials to elements, elements to atoms and atoms to electrons & protons. If we break down the work of an entrepreneur, go to  the most basic level and ask

  • What’s the job of an entrepreneur? What does  he do?
  • Answer:  He solves problems

That’s what an entrepreneur is continuously doing. Solving problems is what moves things forward.

  • You are in STATE A, you come across a problem, you start working on solving the problem, if the problem is solved you move forward to STATE B
  • If you don’t solve the problem – you will be standing still
  • And if you solve a problem in a wrong way, you will move backwards
  • Good problem solvers keep navigating from state to state and the progress keeps happening

Some common problem statements:

  • How do i get featured in techcrunch?
  • How much of seed capital do we need? How can we minimize the requirement?
  • How to find contacts of the right angels?
  • How to in launch next 1 week?
  • How do i make money?
  • How can I define my target customer?
  • How can I make the website load faster?
  • How can I negotiate the rent of my apartment?
  • How can get the damn coffee machine to work?

Problem solving has two aspects to it:

  • Quality of solution
  • Speed of problem solving

Assuming that quality is constant, the speed of solving the problems – that’s what will you give you an edge. It will allow you to be ahead of your customer’s requirements. In case the speed is constant – a better quality solution will make the difference.

But at the end of the day its not an either-or game. To be an exceptionally good problem solver you have to do a good job on both aspects – quality and speed, and you have to do it consistently for all kind of creative problems that a start-up will come across – from technology – to – finance, legal, UI, people, funding, partnerships, sales and the list can really go on.

How to get better at problem solving?

An entrepreneur must be exceptionally good at problem solving in order for their venture to succeed. This skill can be learnt by someone with good aptitude and a discipline to learn. Also one can keep getting better at it, so keep working on it.

Here are some fundamental approaches to problem solving. Use of each of these can make you a better problem solver.

  • The Scientific Method Of Problem Solving

    • Come up with a clear “Problem Statement”  – A problem can’t be solved if it isn’t understood
    • Form a Hypothesis – Hypothesis are reached at after gathering enough information about the problem
      • Hypothesis can be a possible solution to the problem, so if its tested its true you will arrive at the solution
      • Hypothesis can define potential reason for the problem. So if its tested true you would have identified the cause of the problem and can build a solution around that knowledge
    • Test the Hypothesis – For each hypothesis an experiment/ test is performed to determine if the hypothesis is true or false. Experiments are done to gather data.  It is very important that good observations and records are made during an experiment / test
    • Collect the Data – This is where you record your observations, measurements, or information from experiment / test
    • Analyze the Data – Just what does all that data indicate about answering the problem you are solving?
    • Draw Conclusions – After examining the data from the experiment, conclusions can be drawn. In it’s simplest form, the conclusion will be “yes” the hypothesis was correct, or “no” the hypothesis was not correct
      • Yes means – you have the possible answer
      • No means – this was not a correct hypothesis and you cross it out. Based on the current information you should come up with the next hypothesis and test it all over again
    • Repeating the above will normally take you to the solution
  • Increase your collection of “Mental models

    • Google founders used the citation analysis as a model to solve the “search ranking problem” and created the page-rank algo based on that. This only happened because they knew the  citation analysis and had it in their mind as a mental model
    • Whenever you are solving a problem your mind does pattern matching or looks for similar mental models which can be applied to the current problem you are working on
    • You take a mental model – modify it as per the problem at hand and apply it
    • So the more mental models you are aware of – specially the ones that are used in the context of start-ups – the better it is
    • Here are some ways to increase your collection of relevant startup mental model:
      • Read biographies
      • Read good books: business books and books that have nothing to do with business but can teach you something about life
      • Blogs
      • Info on internet : text, videos on youtube,, slideshare, fachak
      • Meet lots of people
  • Use the white board and ask four Questions

    • Where are we?
    • How did we get here?
    • Where do we want to go?
    • How can we get there?

I have found this one to be the most useful starting point in problem solving. I have found that this is also the one which most people miss out on. I suggest you put it on paper and paste in your office. The way it works is; bring the team in a room , put the four question on a whiteboard and start putting answers to the questions on the board. Most likely by the time you get to the last question you will see the answer.

  • Networking and relationships

    • Have a network of people who may have faced similar problems and can help you solve it
    • Knowing them well will give you access to the mental models that these folks have collected
  • Focus! Focus! Focus

    • While solving a problem, keep a laser sharp focus on the problem at hand. Don’t go into tangents. Don’t get distracted.
    • If you get some ideas in between, write them down and worry about them later
  • Practice! Practice! Practice!

    • The more you practice the better you will get at it
  • [Updated]  Create your own road maps without a prior set of rules

    • Dipankar made an excellent point in comments, end of the day its about you figuring out your own rules and not be constrained by any lists.