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What Smart Entrepreneurs Know About Problem-Solving

Going the extra mile solves your problems more efficiently -- and might just make you smarter along the way.
What Smart Entrepreneurs Know About Problem-Solving
Image credit: Shannon Fagan | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Digital Marketing Consultant
5 min read
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The most successful businesses solve a problem for the end-user. Lyft gets people from Point A to Point B quickly and cheaply. Amazon brings the world’s markets to your doorstep in two days, flat. Netflix means you can cut the cord without worrying about a lonesome Saturday night -- endless entertainment is one click away!

Whether you're developing an innovative product that will take the world by storm or solving a payroll problem that’s taking up way too much of your time, your business needs creative problem-solving. Every day. While Archimedes and Newton had world-changing epiphanies that simply dawned on them, the rest of us mere mortals definitely could use some help in this department.

This rings even truer in our rapidly evolving economy. Established business models are stumbling to find their way as slick new formats give the old hands a run for their money. So how do the best in the business rise above and stay ahead, day after day? Here are some insights.

Two heads are better than one.

No doubt you’ve heard the virtues of teamwork to complete a task or an important project. But thinking? That’s something you do by yourself and inside your own head, right? Maybe not.

Research shows that problem-solving in a group or as part of a pair is more effective than flying solo. It may be all very well to come up with ideas by yourself, but truly successful people depend on an intellectual equal to help vet their ideas before any important decisions are made. 

In their seminal paper, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory,” French social scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier posited that thinking and reasoning have an important component that disproportionately improves outcomes. This key component is arguing. It's obviously difficult to uncover unbiased inputs when you argue with yourself. This is where a mental sparring partner comes in. Think of it as adding a yin to your yang so you can arrive at your "eureka!" moment.

Related: The Future of Productivity: Teamwork and Collaboration

Nature backs up this theory of collective problem-solving. A study from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney revealed that shoals of fish solve problems faster and more accurately than do individual fish: “Shoals containing individuals trained in each of the stages pooled their expertise, allowing more fish to access the food, and to do so more rapidly, compared with other shoal compositions.”

Even Warren Buffett relies on the sharp insights of Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. It's probably a good idea to include a business partner or even a close team into your ideation process and problem-solving model.

Organizational culture impacts problem-solving abilities.

Involving one or more teammates in a problem-solving process may not be enough. A Harvard Business Review article highlighted two important ingredients in a winning problem-solving team. First, you need individuals with minds of their own. These unique points of view allow for a variety of ideas and approaches. Second -- and more important -- each independent thinker needs to feel free to contribute her or his thoughts without fear of ridicule or retribution.

Related: The New Rules of Brainstorming

A cognitively diverse team brings together people with completely different approaches to solving the same problem. You're looking for a range of people: analytical types, creatives and organized discipline-maintainers. Because each offers something distinct, the team comes up with a rich variety of ideas to consider.

The team should have the opportunity to function in a psychologically safe space. Here's how it looks in real life: Members are encouraged to contribute without hesitation, mistakes are looked upon as opportunities to get better, and the team moves faster and is open to experimentation. The result? An environment emerges that's ripe for path-breaking solutions and quicker, more efficient processes.

Related: 7 Ways to Help Your Employees Become Better Problem-Solvers

Global diversity for the win.

What do SpaceX, Uber and Stripe have in common? Aside from being billion-dollar startups, each of these American companies has founders who were born outside the United States. In fact, a National Foundation for American Policy brief pointed out that 51 percent of all billion-dollar startups existing in the U.S. in 2016 were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

Research led by William Maddux, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, offers an explanation for this phenomenon. A series of experiments found that foreign-born participants or those who'd lived abroad for substantial lengths of time successfully solved problems more quickly and more creatively.

The researchers explained that individuals are forced to leverage their creativity and problem-solving skills to adapt to a foreign culture and customs. This constant adjustment and thinking on one’s feet make such individuals uniquely well equipped to come up with creative solutions to problems. Undoubtedly, these evolved problem-solving skills contribute to success in business.

Related: Scale Culture Alongside Growth Through Diversity

So what do you do? Move to a different country and start a new business there? Probably not.

You could start by hiring a diverse workforce that includes people across different nationalities. These varied voices and eclectic mindsets have the potential to revamp your problem-solving process and offer a much-needed fresh perspective.

Related: Stuck? 5 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Gain a Fresh Perspective

In times of need, resourceful business owners can find plenty of problem-solving templates. But the beaten path often is the quickest route to failure. Instead, opt for a more original and creative journey. The road may be more winding and cumbersome, but science proves that going the extra mile helps you solve problems more efficiently. Stretching that extra neuron just might make you smarter along the way!

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