by Jamie Flinchbaugh, author of “People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem“
Running a startup, or a growing business of any size, is filled with new problems and challenges every single day. How you approach solving these problems determines how easily and smoothly you can scale the business.
Most companies seek to remove the issues, or the symptoms, as quickly as they can. After all, right around the corner are plenty more and you’ve got to keep moving quickly. This is a mistake. If you start down this path, the problems will grow as you do, and eventually they will overwhelm you. Long ago I worked with an organization that began scaling out of startup mode and grew multiple-fold in a few years. But all the senior management team were still chasing the same types of problems they started out with, but there were just now more of them. They collapsed under their own weight. After hitting the reset button, they started embracing the problems as a pathway to build better structures underneath, and now they are 10x their previous peak.
This is the key message: use the problems you experience to help tell you where you are lacking structure. Structure is the foundation upon which you build a stable and consistent business.
Consider this simple example. Imagine you are receiving customer questions via email and your social media platforms. You answer each one as thoroughly and quickly as possible. As you get more customers, you get more questions, and more and more until that’s all you’re doing is answering questions. Instead, you are better off doing two things. First, you convert each question into a FAQ that you can point future customer questions towards. Second, you figure out why the customer has questions and improve everything from your marketing to your product until the questions aren’t needed.
That might be an obvious approach (or based on some of my observations, perhaps not), but do you also apply that to hiring staff, making management decisions, building your supply chain, and every other aspect of your business? Most founders do not. Most often founders have a maniacally structured and systemic approach to the core of their value proposition, or whatever makes them special. However, outside their special domain, it can easily fall apart. Just as world-class doctors and lawyers may not always build a world-class operation beneath them.
How do you do this well? First, frame problems well. Framing problems effectively points you, and your team, in the right direction. Did you hire someone that you needed to fire? That’s the easy framing. Did your hiring process allow you to make this mistake? That’s a higher leverage framing that gives you far more power over making a real improvement.
Second, either start with small problems, or break bigger problems down into smaller chunks. Entrepreneurs often want to solve big problems, and the spirit with which they start a business might be to do exactly that. But in building a scalable business, problems and solutions are not one size fits all. Solving smaller problems allows you to work faster, but also prevents you from overengineering the solutions. Give each small problem nothing more than it needs, and then move on to the next one.
Third, seek an understanding of cause and effect. Be a scientist of how your own organization works. Again, the objective is to structurally affect the problem, not just treat the symptom. Band-aids and aspirin will not help you get strong. This is one of the key areas that we need to slow down. If you take the time to understand why the problem exists, your ability to solve problems will improve drastically.
And fourth, test. If you already know the solution, then you shouldn’t have the problem in the first place. The point of problem solving is that you don’t know the solution. Once you come up with an idea, you have to still assume you don’t know. That’s what testing is all about. Try something with the deliberate purpose of learning. Make sure it works as intended. Test it under real conditions, and again, be a scientist of cause and effect.
When you solve problems in this manner, you set yourself up to scale with consistency, effectiveness, and efficiency. You are building your organization one solution at a time.
Jamie Flinchbaugh, author of “People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem“, is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, Consultant, and Board Member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience. As Founder of JFlinch, he helps teams accelerate their journey by solving their challenging problems and providing the resources, education, and tools needed to make lean leaders successful.