Problem Solving

In the Entrepreneur's Mind, Problems Are Only Hurdles in Front of Goals

In the Entrepreneur's Mind, Problems Are Only Hurdles in Front of Goals
Image credit: Romain Guy
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Entrepreneurs are good problem solvers.

While that may seem obvious, it may be the most overlooked part of the entrepreneurial mindset -- the way entrepreneurs think about things.

Most people who think about the mindset may focus on the first step, opportunity recognition. It’s usually the easiest to see, and the sexiest. We like to ask entrepreneurs questions such as “How did you think of that?” or “How did you know that was going to happen?”

Related: Defining Problems: The Most Important Business Skill You?'ve Never Been Taught

That’s because we most frequently encounter entrepreneurs attached to their new businesses or ventures that are usually new or innovative. But if they brought their idea to market and were able to shift it from concept to concrete, they almost certainly had to solve some problems along the way.

So what we don’t ask entrepreneurs -- but should -- is, “How do you solve problems?”

It’s an important question to have answers to because like the other stops on the entrepreneurship journey, problem solving can be taught. It’s a skill. And when we understand how entrepreneurs solve problems, we can teach the mindset more effectively.

At the same time, it’s not as though we know nothing about entrepreneurial problem solving. We know quite a bit actually.

It would be nice if the cliché about "seeing a problem as an opportunity" worked. But it doesn’t always. For many -- entrepreneurs especially -- sometimes a problem is really just a problem. And it’s hard to see it any other way.

The first thing we do when teaching entrepreneurship is to be clear that there will be problems. Call them challenges, setbacks, adversity -- whatever you wish. No one is going to succeed without meeting and overcoming them. So we prepare future entrepreneurs to first expect and anticipate problems, then how to recognize problems and finally, how to prepare for them.

We’ve found that by getting students to anticipate and recognize problems, they have more time and resources to solve them. They are less surprised and learn that pro-active action can often alleviate the severity of problems.

But what sets successful problem-solving entrepreneurs apart is that they often see problems as little more than another item to be checked off the list. They view problems as temporary obstacles on a worthwhile journey for which they are highly motivated to see through. Keeping the goal in mind helps maintain focus on the size of the problem and deploys action-oriented solutions.

Related: To Solve Big Problems, Assume Everything Is Wrong and Ask Dumb Questions

While many "regular" people may see a problem and think, “My goodness, that’s a real problem. I have no idea what to do about that,” and entrepreneurs may see the same problem and think, “How do I get around this to get where I need to be?” The focus is on getting past the problem -- solving it, working around it or making it no longer relevant to the goal.

Sure, it’s an attitude. But that’s important.

It’s another cliché to suggest "creative problem solving." Thinking creatively isn’t something most people can just do -- on command -- when faced with a problem.

At the same time, entrepreneurs do tend to embrace the idea that solutions don’t often come from likely places and that personal brain power alone may not do the trick every time. They seek guidance from others -- especially those outside their field. They are open to inspired problem solving in unlikely places such as art, leisure reading or children.

Finally, on top of being open to creative and inspired ideas and staying goal focused, entrepreneurs often try many different solutions -- even after the problem is solved.

“High-achieving entrepreneurs understand that every time we solve a problem, we are one step closer to mastery,” Scott Hansen, the CEO of Scott Hansen Consulting, told me the other day. That’s a good way to say it.

They can be so open to new input that they experiment with different, unusual solutions to see if one fix is superior to another or improves their product or service overall. When someone says, for example, “I know we solved that problem but I’d like to know if this idea will solve it faster or more permanently,” that’s entrepreneurial thinking.

Maybe, in that way, a problem can be an opportunity. But it doesn’t have to be.

The four key elements to entrepreneurship problem solving are anticipation and preparation, keeping a strong outcome and goal focus, being open to new ideas and solutions and continuing to work on a problem even after it’s been solved.

To be a strong entrepreneurial problem solver, you don’t need to do all four. The best news is that, because problem solving is a skill, you can learn how to do it. Or learn to do it better.

Related: How to Solve Big Problems: Start Small