Today we’re talking with Nat Greene about his recently published book, Stop Guessing, The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers. We’re going to learn what it takes to be a great problem solver and more importantly, how you can take this information and apply it to your business and life.
We’re going to find out why guessing is a really dumb thing to do and we’ll be focusing on what you can do to not be dumb when trying to solve a problem. I think you’re going to find Nat an engaging guest……one where you’ll get lots of take home value from this conversation.
Here are some of the things you’ll learn in today’s episode:
- Why when you start a solving problem activity you are mostly guessing at the solution.
- Know the difference between having a lot of data and right data for solving problems.
- Learn what the five why’s are and how it can help you make better decisions.
- Learn that ignorance is not a bad thing when solving problems, just embrace it.
- Make sure you know what problem you’re trying to solve.
Narrator: Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.
Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.
Josh: Hey, how are you today? This is Josh Patrick and you’re at The Sustainable Business.
Today, our guest is Nat Greene. He is the CEO of Stroud International. And today, we’re going to talk about his new book Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers. So I’m kind of curious what these nine behaviors are. So the only way we’re going to find out is if we bring Nat in. So, let’s do that.
Hey, Nat. How are you today?
Nat: Good. Good morning, Josh.
Josh: Thanks a lot for being on the show today. So tell me about these nine behaviors of great problem solvers. I know that you work with really big companies but I’m going to bet that it’s probably the same stuff for small businesses as the big businesses for what we should be focusing on.
Nat: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. I mean, look, people are people. And they behave the same way at work as they do at home, in a big business, in a small business – in my experience. And so, the behaviors that the people need to be the greatest problem solver that they can possibly be are the same regardless of where your work environment is.
And so, I’m excited to talk to your audience today because there are lots of small businesses out there. And in my professional career, as you said, I’ve mostly interacted with very, very large businesses but the message is the same and the benefits the people can get are the same.
Josh: So what would you say– you’ve got nine behaviors and usually some behaviors are more important than other behaviors. So what would be the number one behavior that folks might want to be paying attention to?
Nat: Well, this is all about solving hard, practical problems. And the most important behavior – we put into the title of the book, which is stop guessing. It turns out that when you look at how people go about attempting to solve problems, what they’re mostly doing all the time is guessing.
And we can’t help it. And it’s sort of trained into us. It’s developed as a trade.
And I wonder whether there’s even some sort of evolutionary pressure in that because when we see danger and this immediate problem, we sort of have to react quickly and you sort of have the story of the sabre-toothed tiger jumping out from behind a bush. It’s obviously a big problem. What do you do?
Well, if you stand there and have a think, you might be dead so you’ve got to take immediate action. But we carry that same pattern into different types of problems – and much more complicated problems that require more thought.
And so, the first thing you’ve got to do is stop guessing. I mean, the other things that reinforce guessing –if you imagine you’re in a school setting, or back when you were in the elementary school or middle school and the teacher would ask a question. And what does everyone do? Well, people sort of put their hand up or they shout out. And what they’re doing is putting their first thought out there to help the class.
But let’s say someone comes up with an idea that’s terrible. What does the teacher say to them? Well, they say, “Hey, good guess. Good attempt”, right? And that’s because in that setting, we want to encourage people to learn and to participate in class.
But that then bleeds into, fast forward, 20 years and you’ve got sort of a hard problem facing you in business and that same pattern of being rewarded for guessing has been built upon and built upon over the years. And so, most people start into a problem by guessing at what they think the solution is.
It can be great for very, very simple problems. You have an initial thought pop into your mind. You try it out. It doesn’t cost you much time or money to try out something quickly if it’s a simple problem. But on hard problems that might have many, many possible solutions, you’re typically wasting your time with guessing.
Josh: So it seems to me that this means that when a problem presents itself, or a challenge presents itself, or even a question presents itself, I wouldn’t want to be thinking about what kind of data can I put together that would help me make a better decision. At least, that’s what I ask my clients to do and that’s what I do myself when I’m sort of looking at an issue that seems to be a problematic thing. Do you have any comment about that?
Nat: Yeah. I do. I think that’s an excellent approach and one that no doubt has served you well in your life. And I touch on this in one of the behaviors I call “smell the problem” which is get out there and take a look at it and use all your senses to gather data about what’s going on.
Now, the difficulty that people get into here is they confuse having a lot of data with having the right information. And so, in a lot of cases, there’ll be a more complex problem if you’re like, “Well, let’s get data on it. We’ll measure everything.” And that might be fine if it’s relatively straightforward – something to do with what you’re eating or your diet. It’s pretty easy to record that and then see what’s happening.
But if you’re talking about, say, an industrial process or some sort of computer problem where you could have reams, and reams, and reams of data and you just can’t see the wood for the trees. It doesn’t lead you anywhere. In fact, often, it does the opposite. Just randomly collecting data leads people astray and we see that all the time. I mean, I’ve worked in businesses where we turned up and people will be analyzing data. And they’ve got data from all over the place. And they’re just running a wild goose chase. And nobody’s actually focused on getting the right data.
Josh: So that’s a great point. And to get the right data, at least this is my experience, if you’re not asking the right question, there is no way you’re going to get the right data because, as we all know now, there’s infinite amount of data.
Josh: For example, I was working with a client recently. They’re an engineering company and we were trying to figure out– they have a 35% conversion rate on proposals to sales. And I said, “Well, ghee, where are we good? Where are we bad?” And they had no idea.
So we collected some data around that but we still didn’t know what the closing ratio was by categories. We had to go back and look at that. And that’s where, I think, asking the right question helps you figure out what data you need to be looking at to make a reasonably good decision – or even ask a better question off of that data.
Nat: Yeah. I agree with you. And there are lots of ways to sort of develop sort of the list of questions or to help understand what questions you want to ask in problem solving and solving hard practical problems which is obviously the bit I know most about. Very often, people have different methods that they can use to help them ask the right questions. And that might be from something very basic that most of your listeners, I’m sure, are familiar with such as 5 Whys which is a method – you just ask yourself “Why is this happening? Why is this happening?” And it’s meant to help you drill down.
Josh: Could you just go into that a little bit because that’s a really big deal? And I use– the 5 Whys comes out of the Toyota production system which many people know. By the way, a few people on this podcast who are listening to us probably would know that.
Josh: We’ve been using it way before that because it gets to our root cause.
Nat: Yeah. And the thing is, the point of asking why is to just dig a little deeper each time. And the thing that I found is, it’s a very broad-based approach. It’s very accessible to people. And so, I do like 5 Whys.
The challenge with it of course is, as with any tool, you can use it effectively and you can use it ineffectively. So, sometimes I see 5 Whys and it’s basically five guesses. “Why is this happening?” I don’t know. Maybe, it’s this. Maybe it’s the other thing.” And you’re not actually using it to methodically drill down. And there are other methods that sort of are more technically complete and allow you to avoid guessing.
But that’s sort of not the main thrust that I want to touch on. I want to touch on the behaviors of great problem solvers and how they link to it because it doesn’t actually matter what method you use. It’s sort of a way to prompt your thinking. As you said, help you ask the right questions.
As long as you have the right behavior set and you’ve developed sort of the right sort of sense of what it is you’re looking for, so i.e. you’re not looking for all the data as we talked about. You’re not just randomly looking for that. You’re asking a series of questions to help you dig deeper towards the root cause. The 5 Whys piece can be helpful but it can also lead you astray and it can just become five guesses.
Josh: Well, that’s probably true with everything. So, what are the behaviors that we need to be thinking about?
Nat: Well, I obviously talked about “stop guessing and smell the problem.”
Nat: Another one is “embrace your ignorance.”
Nat: So, a lot of people– you know, we have this problem with experts and with our own expertise. And people don’t like to be ignorant. I mean, even the word is sort of, it’s slightly off putting. It’s not like a friendly word. If someone says, “Oh, you’re ignorant.” You might have a negative response. And not many people express their ignorance.
What we mostly spend our time doing is explaining what we know and pretending we know more. And it can very, very destructive – helpful but destructive at the same time, because you obviously have to have some expertise. You have to tap into some knowledge. You have to utilize your accumulated skill and knowledge.
But what people need to remember is we know almost nothing about the total content of information that’s out there. The Library of Congress has way, way more than 10 million books – I mean, like 15 million books or something in it. And that’s just one source of information.
So the more we can embrace and adopt the behavior that “we truly don’t know much,” the better off we’re going to be when come to problem solving. And in particular, the better off we’re going to be with hard problems because hard problems have typically stood the test of time. They’ve already resisted some initial guesses. They’ve already resisted the patterns we spot in our head. With experience, we go, “Oh yeah, I remember. I’ve seen this thing before.” And you can apply that experience – your problem solving to it. But hard problems have already resisted that. So embracing your ignorance is critical because the solution to the hard problem normally lies in what you don’t know rather than what you think you already know.
Josh: So that sort of goes to what we call the beginner’s mind which is really useful to pretend, even you if you do know a lot, that you know nothing. And you can ask yourself the question from the very beginning. It’s as “If I knew nothing about this, what would I want to know first?” Would that be a reasonable question that you should ask?
Nat: Absolutely. And another test of similar vein is how do you explain this to someone who doesn’t know? And one of my sons, at the moment he’s studying statistics. And there was another student in his class who was struggling with a piece. And so, he went and explained it to, you know, like help coach him on it. And he came away understanding the statistics much better than he did beforehand but he thought he knew it.
Obviously, people thought he knew it well or they wouldn’t have asked him to help one of his fellow students. But by explaining things to people – by teaching them or by taking this beginner’s mind yourself or with others, it’s a good as many great techniques around that to help develop that. And it helps you embrace the fact that you maybe don’t understand things as fully as you would like to think.
Josh: It makes sense to me. So your fourth principle is “know what problem you’re solving”. What do you mean by that?
Nat: So often, you find that people are working on the wrong thing. They’ve defined the problem incorrectly. They’ve either guessed at part of what they think is going on. They think they have an idea about what’s causing it and they define the problem that way.
And very often, people – when they talk about a problem, they’re actually working their own guess at a solution into it. Or they’re advocating for what they think the potential solution is. And people need to be very careful about that because it can lead you astray.
There’s an example we talk about in the book where my colleagues were working in the oil industry and they had a problem with what they called dinosaur hair clogging some of their purification equipment, okay? And they said, “Yeah, there’s dinosaur hair blocking it.” And when you define a problem like that, it’s fun, it’s colorful. We do it all the time. Everyone has these problems and these stories in their businesses.
But when we define a problem incorrectly like that, it makes it impossible to solve it because what are you going to do about dinosaur hair? I mean, of course, we know it’s not dinosaur hair, right? When you just think about, you go, “It’s not dinosaur hair that’s the problem. The oil didn’t even come from dinosaurs.” But you see this image of like Conan the Barbarian going back in a time machine to shave the dinosaurs or whatever before they produce the oil – even though there’s like ten problems with that.
But it distracts people from working on it. It means it’s not a solvable problem. So you’ve got to be super careful about how you define your problem or re‑define it because you can defeat yourself right at the beginning.
Josh: So if you were going to define a problem you’re solving – define it well, what do you need to be doing?
Nat: Well, you need to go look at it. You need to put aside your guesses at what you think the solution is or what action people take. And then you need to define it as something measurable. This is what we train our consultants to do at Stroud International – the business I run.
And you’ve got to go and define it as something that you can directly measure rather than a statement to the problem. And that might be, you’re talking before about how many of your proposals go through to close.
So you might define your problem as, “Hey, you know, 35% of our proposals we’re closing on and we need to make it 50%.” So the problem definition is percent close rate or something, okay? And then that helps you hone in on specifically what the problem is.
Whereas, often, somebody will define the problem as “I don’t know.” I mean, you could make a guess at it in a situation you were referring to before. People have all kinds of ideas why they’re not closing. They might say, “Oh, our problem is the sales guys aren’t skilled enough, or they’re not doing the right things, or they’re not working enough hours, or we’re not listening to the customer enough.” And it’s fine but we’re already limiting our options – sort of creating a bias in our brain if we define a problem that way.
Josh: So it seems to me that when you know a problem you’re working on, you’re doing that through a question – not through a statement.
Nat: When you know.
Or as you’re trying to figure out what is, it seems to me that making a statement can lead you down the wrong path because you’re saying what you want to do before you know what it is that you should be doing?
Nat: I think what I would say there is it depends what statement you’re doing. So when you refined your point there to – if it’s about what you think the solution is, a statement about what you think is wrong, rather than the statement about the actual measurable thing that defines the problem defines success, then I’d agree with you. But I think making a statement about correctly defining a problem is acceptable. It’s when your statement involves your guess, sort of, potential solution that is problematic.
Josh: Nice distinction. I like that a lot.
So your fifth thing says here, “you’ve got to dig into fundamentals.” What the heck does that mean?
Nat: Most of us are surprisingly reluctant to go and understand how something works.
And something as simple as your toilet, right? So, maybe your toilet stops working. And if you sort of have a practical bone and you’re that way inclined. I mean, I’m an engineer by training then okay you’re going to lift off the lid and see what’s going on. Is there water supply? Is the chain connected? Is the valve leaking? But a lot of people, they don’t go and try and understand how things work. If the toilet doesn’t work– well, they’d sort of leave it and move on, or they call the plumber, or call someone else to take care of it.
And when people fail to dig in to the fundamentals and get stuck into how things work, then we’re just left with guessing. And it’s sort of like not doing the hard work. And yet, we really don’t know how a lot of things work in our lives. And the best problem solvers accept that. They embrace their ignorance and then they dig into. “Yeah, but how does this actually work? Explain it to me so I really understand.” In spite of the fact that we all think we understand how all the stuff works at a superficial level. But the solution to hard problems typically lies deeper than that.
Josh: I would agree with that. And your next two, sort of, tie in together or at least in my world because I find this is true with a lot of experts. You say, “don’t rely on experts” and then “believe in the simple solution”.
Experts, by their nature, seem to overcomplicate stuff. They don’t make it simple. And I’ve lots of reasons for my belief behind the but I’m kind of curious about what’s your reasoning for putting these two pieces in.
Nat: Well, let me start with the experts. I mean, experts can be tremendously useful sources of information. And you can take a shortcut sometimes by utilizing them. And that’s why phrase it as, “don’t rely on experts.”
So let’s not confuse someone’s expertise for something else. So, you might have an expert in how some particular system works, or your order entry system, or it could be any part of your business. But that doesn’t mean they’re great problem solvers. And that doesn’t mean they know more about this particular system as it applies to your unique business or your unique personal circumstance. And so, let’s not end up over-relying on them and just giving them the monkey and the responsibility to solve your problem because if you do that, you might find that they aren’t great problem solvers and that they’re just trying to wedge in something that is quick and helps.
And the other thing is, with an expert is, it can very difficult for them to say, “I don’t know” because depending on the type of expert it is, they have to have an answer. And so what can happen is, they guess at something or they anchor on something and– yeah, it’s an educated guess. Yes, they have more expertise than you. But you try turning that around them. Say, it’s wrong, how’s your organization going to shift back from that? It’s so easy to then go, “Hey, the expert said this so , you know, we’re off the hook.” But even if it’s wrong, it’s very difficult to undo.
So, I think, obviously, I have a high degree of respect for experts. I mean, when it comes to problem solving, I am one myself, right? But we can’t rely on them too much in an inappropriate situation because it can be damaging.
Josh: So here’s something you might want to do with experts, and this is more or less how I recommend using experts is that once you know what you want to do, then it’s time to bring the expert in to help you figure out what’s the best way to get there. But to have an expert help you figure out what you want to do, you have to realize that they’re going to look at the world from their expertise and they’re going to help you solve the problem from their expertise. There’s a couple of reasons, at least in my opinion, (1) that’s what they know, but (2) if you don’t use their way of knowing, they can’t send you a bill.
Nat: Yeah. And of course, I agree with you there. The one caveat on that is, unless they’re an expert in helping you decide what to do, so that’s fine. But don’t bring in an expert for implementing a new software package before you’ve decided that that’s what you need.
Nat: It’s not that people are bad. It’s just that that’s just what they know.
Josh: No. It’s the nature of the beast.
Nat: Yeah, exactly. And that’s what they’re interested in. And they’re excited about that. And they’d love to help, you brought the new software package in. And that’s just human nature.
Josh: There’s a great saying is that, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”
Josh: And that is what experts tend to do. Is that they have a narrow area. There are a very few what I call generalist experts. That’s what I call myself because I have this broad base of knowledge. I still bring in experts once we figure out what it is exactly we’re trying to accomplish. And you’re right, there are people who have an expertise in helping you figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. And those folks tend to be expert question askers – at least, in my opinion.
Nat: Well, that’s an interesting point. I realized I’ve got to do some more research because I need to double check what the actual definition of an expert is because surely the definition is – you know an awful lot about a narrow set of things or else you can’t really be an expert because there’s so much material out there, you can’t know everything. So I’ve always seen it as defining it to a narrower field and then being an expert there. So I need to think about where you fit as well in that and myself.
But no, it’s interesting. I mean, the expertise is wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing. We’re blessed to have these people around that we can tap into. And we’ve got to make sure we’re controlling our own destiny.
Josh: We have two more. And we’re only going to have time to get to one of them because we’re almost out of time. So I’m going to number 9. I’m going to skip “make facts-based decisions” – that makes a lot of sense. But “staying on target.” To me, that’s a really big deal. Especially in smaller business, we tend to owners who are really fond of bright, shiny objects and they get off target really easily. Do you have any great, simple ways to stay on target?
Nat: Oh, wow. That’s a challenge. I’m going to have to do some homework on that one as well.
I mean, staying on target. It requires discipline. And, I think, the main reason people get off target is – yes, there’s the piece about the bright, shiny object and so on. But I also think it’s fear. I think if you want to stay on target, you’ve got to conquer your fear which leads us back into believe in a simple solution as well, by the way, which I skipped over.
But I think the reason, deep down, that people don’t stay on target and they stray off working on their hard problem is they’re fearful that they’re going to fail at it. And so, you find other things to do that you know you can move forward today and you’re confident that you’ll get a result. And then that hard problem that you’re meant to be working on, you’re not so certain and your fear overwhelms you and it prevents you from tackling it.
So, my tip would be to – maybe it’s a bit of mindfulness and stuff. It’s tie into—“how do you actually feel about this problem that you’re working on? And why is it that you allow yourself to be distracted by other things?” And there might be something you’ll learn from that.
Josh: Well, Nat, unfortunately, we’re out of time. And I’m going to be that some of our listeners are interested in your book, so can you tell us where they can go to find it? And where they can go to find you, if they want more information from you?
Nat: Sure, if they’d like to learn more about me and what I’m looking to achieve in publishing this book and getting some ideas. In general, they can go to www.radicallybetter.com. And for the book, Stop Guessing, it’s very well distributed. My publisher is Berrett-Koehler. They’ve done a brilliant job. It’s out April 3rd and you can pre-order it now at your independent bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Target even has it. So you can get it pretty much anywhere.
And it’s priced for the mass market so that as many people as possible can learn these behaviors and become better problem solvers. So I encourage you to start by looking at some of the online resources. And if you like what you see, order a copy of the book or a copy for everyone you love.
And for those of you who are with us, I would like to make an offer for you also. I have a one-hour free audio CD course called Success to Sustainability: The five things you need to build a sustainable business. To get this, it’s really easy, just take out your smartphone but don’t do this if you’re driving. Take out your smartphone and text the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. That’s the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. You’ll get a link. You give me your address and we mail you the free one-hour audio CD.
And this is Josh Patrick. You’ve been at the Sustainable Business. Thanks a lot for stopping by. I hope to see you back here really soon again.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at www.askjoshpatrick.com, or you can send Josh an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.