As a small business owner, you’ve got problems. That’s a loaded statement, and is likely true on a number of levels. But, for this post we’re concerned with those big business problems that keep entrepreneurs up at night–Is my business sustainable? How can I stay ahead of the competition? What do my customers really want? {Insert your sleepless night question here}—as well as those immediate tactical problems that tend to nag at you as you go about your day—how can I get better marketing ROI? What product changes can I make to improve utilization? Where are my productivity sucks? etc.

If you’re operating solo, then you are probably churning questions like these around in your head constantly. If you have a trusted team, then you can leverage them to help you come up with creative and innovative solutions.

Those are two sentences that dramatically oversimplify and minimize a major undertaking that is fraught with bias, undermined by group dynamics, and as likely to produce pipe dreams as it is an actionable strategy. In fact, one of the most effective things you can do to ensure productive problem solving (regardless of whether you do it yourself or with your team) is to begin with exercises that expose predispositions and blind spots as well as thought patterns that may be advantageous or detrimental to developing the best possible solutions to small business problems.

The following five videos highlight experiments and techniques that will help you do just that.


1. The Psychology of Problem-Solving

This introduction to problems solving looks at three classic experiments: the match/candle problem, the 9 dot problem, and the three glass problem. Each experiment is designed to highlight a common shortfall of problem solving techniques that prevents creative solutions.

As the problems are presented, pause the video and attempt to solve them.

How did you do? And more importantly, what did your solutions tell you about yourself? Did you immediately look outside the box for solutions or was your thought process more constrained? Did you embrace the empty space as an asset, or ignore it? How easily could you change your perspective?

The answers to these questions don’t make you a better or worse problem solver, but your ability to recognize your own predispositions does.


2. The Monty Hall Problem

This clip from the movie 21 highlights a classic probability problem, based on the Let’s Make a Deal television show hosted by Monty Hall. The premise is that you pick from three doors—behind one is a new car and behind the other two goats. The big question is whether after an unpicked door is revealed to contain a goat, should you swap your pick?

What would you do, and does it matter?

In fact it does matter, and after one door opens your statistical odds of winning the car go up if you swap doors. The lesson here, “If you don’t know which door to open, always account for variable change.” In practice, a number of factors stop people from making decisions on pure math—fear, stubbornness, optimism, and even plain indecisiveness.

Of course, all business decisions needn’t (and if fact shouldn’t) be made based on pure math (though I’m sure some mathematicians would disagree). But, have your team perform this exercise and see where they come down, and their reasoning. Knowing who refuses to relinquish a decision once made, who relies strictly on the numbers, and who is open to change, can be a valuable tool for examining group decisions and weighting opinions.


3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma

This example from basic game theory poses a problem of cooperation in a vacuum, where you are asked to make a decision that affects you and another party in a situation where you have no control and no ability to collaborate with the other party. Logic would dictate that you act in a way that maximizes your own self-interest, but as the game shows that is difficult to do when you have incomplete information. And because of that incomplete information people often end up hurting themselves out of a desire not to be taken advantage of by others.

Have your team play the game and note the responses. Who is more likely to be cooperative, who selfish? Do the results change if the game is played anonymously (i.e. the participants don’t know you can map answers back to a specific individual)? Do the results change upon multiple repetitions of the game—can your team learn to adapt and be more cooperative for the greater good? Does one person feign cooperation to advance his own agenda?

Additionally, what does the game tell you about how you are predisposed to operate in your marketplace? Is your goal to dominate, or to cooperate with other companies for shared success? Do you work to advance your industry or only your company? Again, the answer here is not a right or wrong attitude or strategy—but understanding your operational predispositions is important to maximizing your operational competitiveness.


4. Working Backwards to Solve Problems

I learned a long time ago that the best way to proofread is to read backwards. This eliminates the tendency of our brains to simply ignore what does not belong or to see what is expected rather than what is what is actually there. (Did you skip right over that second what is? If you did, you just fell victim. If you look at the sentence again, it will jump right out at you.)

Backward thinking, also known as retrograde analysis, consists of approaching a problem from the desired solution and tracking your way back to the starting point.

Retrograde analysis not only helps focus on a complete solution by circumventing natural tendencies to overlook components that we don’t expect or want to see, it also helps to craft solutions based on an assumption of success. Such an approach helps to alleviate, if only hypothetically, the second-guessing and doubt that typically comes with problem solving, which may make your team more likely to propose creative solutions.


5. Drawing Toast

This TED Talk from Tom Wujec, Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast, uses a simple Systems Thinking example (making toast) to help groups progress to solving complex business problems. This paper provides a fantastic overview of Systems Thinking, and notes that, “Traditional analysis focuses on separating the individual pieces of what is being studied…Systems thinking, in contrast focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system…of which it is a part. This means that instead of isolating smaller and small parts of the system being studied, systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and large numbers of interactions as an issue is being studied.”

The basic premise of Drawing Toast is that asking someone to diagram the process of making toast is a great warm up for tackling more complex problems, and that when groups compare, contrast, and combine toast process documents, they learn how to work together to tackle critical business problems.

If you want to try the Drawing Toast exercise with your team, head over to Wujec’s website: DrawToast. You’ll find a full set of instructions (or download the DrawToast Systems Thinking Guide), along with other templates that are useful for system design analysis as a problem solving tool for common small business strategic decisions. You can also check out the Gallery of Drawings of Toast to see how other teams approach and define the process.


For more short videos that walk through business problem solving examples, issues, and techniques check out TedEd Lessons Worth Sharing, most of which are based on Ted Talks from around the country. (For Ted Talks themselves, read my Tip post from a few weeks ago: 10 TED Talks for Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs.)

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I’m the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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