2 min read

How I think about solving problems at work

In my 3rd year of university I signed up to be a maths tutor for first-years. Most of the students studied hard and understand the theory well enough, but somehow still did poorly on the exams. This puzzled me and initially I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to help them.

Eventually I asked two students to take me through their exam papers and that’s when things clicked. I noticed that both of them approached problems from the ground up - as if it was the first time they were encountering that type of question.

With this insight in mind, I began to take a different approach. Before I helped someone tackle a problem I’d first ask them two questions:

  1. What type of problem is this?
  2. What is the general solution to this type of problem?

The result was striking: in the process of answering the two questions the students would usually solve the problems themselves.

It turns out that there are only a handful of problem types you’ll encounter in a first-year maths exam. The variables may be unique, but the way you solve each problem type remains roughly the same. If you were able to classify the maths problems then solving them became trivial.

Surprisingly, this phenomenon isn’t unique to maths problems. Classifying problems is valuable in all sorts of situations!

Most business problems have existing solutions

Founders sometimes make a similar mistake to the maths students. They encounter a problem, forgo further thinking about the problem itself and immediately try to solve it. In doing this they fail to leverage the vast pool of knowledge available to them and end up with sub-par solutions.

Almost every business problem you encounter has already been solved by someone else. Even more, most of the solutions have been captured in blogs, podcasts and videos. The few that haven’t are a Zoom call away.

This means that running a company is less about coming up with novel solutions and more about choosing between existing solutions [1]. Save innovation for your product and copy ruthlessly when it comes to running the company.

Problem classification cuts through the noise

The challenge is that there is so much information out there! How do you know what to copy when there are literally thousands of articles on each topic?

Just like maths students learned - you start by understanding the problem. The more specific you can be about describing and classifying your problem, the easier it will be to find the appropriate solution. If you know exactly what your problem is you’ll find that the right solutions are usually trivial to identify.

In summary: