On problem solving – Interview with Kristin Merz

I recently sat down with Kristin Neperud Merz to talk with her about her new book “Unscribbling: the art of problem solving and fulfilling your desires” to find out how entrepreneurs and visionaries can best incorporate some of Unscribblings teachings. What follows is our Q&A discussion.

Rajesh: Your book lays out a problem solving technique that you say can be “used to solve any problem.” Most entrepreneurs I know pride themselves on their problem solving ability, so why should an entrepreneur read this book?

Kristin: Actually I think everyone instinctively knows how to solve problems. In emergency situations almost every one of us can instinctively jump in and work to solve the problem. The hard part is applying that knowledge in more everyday situations.

Entrepreneurs do tend to have more practice solving problems than the average person, because they are usually in a constant state of problem solving – solving problems from developing their products, to sales, to handling accounting, to HR issues, to lease negotiations, to corporation filings – the list could just go on and on. For most entrepreneurs this also goes hand in hand with increased stress levels too though. Especially if they are in start-up mode. There just seems to be a constant stream of none stop problems for entrepreneurs to solve.

When entrepreneurs are taught a step-by-step process on how to handle problems as they arise they now have the tools to take away some of that stress. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel for each new situation or fly by the seat of their pants, they can stop and go back to the process. There is a lots of comfort in knowing the right skills and processes.

The Unscribbling process can also help to remind you to really take a look at the problem and make sure you have it appropriately defined it before you plunge into the brainstorming and execution. This is a step most people gloss over, but they shouldn’t. If instead of just looking at a problem, the entrepreneur took the time to find the true desire behind the problem they would actually be able to go forward with even more possible solutions. That is part of the beauty of the process.

So by learning the tools and working the process you are able to alleviate some stress and make sure they are actually solving the correct problem. Good skills for an entrepreneur to have in their back pocket.

Rajesh: You also say it can help the reader to “fulfill their desires.” How does problem solving tie so closely with fulfilling your desires?

Kristin: The steps to fulfilling your desires can follow the same steps as problem solving. For inside every problem there is an underlying want. This is like life – we want something, but don’t have it. Problems and wants in life mirror each other as they both contain an underlying desire behind them. The real question in both situations becomes, how do we fulfill the desire behind the want or problem? This is the key. Once we have identified that then we can move forward. So the same steps that you use to solve problems can help you live with your dreams fulfilled.

Rajesh: Can you give me an example of finding a desire in a want for problem?

Kristin: Sure. When people think about what they want their life, or how they want their business to look, they are generally looking at what they want, or the problem. “I want ___, but I don’t have it.” They’ve seen the car or the lifestyle that they want, but need to figure out how to get it. With the Unscribbling process though you need to make sure you have correctly identified the DESIRE behind the want or problem. That is what you are really looking for.

Like, someone says, “I want a new car.” Ok, well, before you go looking for new cars, ask yourself, “why do you want a new car?” When you start to explore the “why” you get closer to your true desire. For instance, you could want a new car so you have reliable transportation, or to impress your friends, or to transport equipment, or you just had a baby and want to make it easier to transport your family. When you get to the real “why” you are probably getting closer to what you really should be solving and better defining what is best for you.

So, say you want a new car so you can have reliable transportation. A new car is one way to accomplish that. You could also take the bus. You could also ride your bike. Or, you could arrange to car pool with people. When you start to look at the “why”s, your original want – aka “I want a new car” – usually becomes only one solution of many.

When you start to look at life like this, you realize that you always have options. You no longer get stuck on just one way to solve your problems and fulfill your dreams. Let’s look at the car example again. If you think you want a new car and that is the problem you are solving for you are much more limited in possible solutions – especially if you can’t afford a new car right now. But when you get to the “why” infinite more options become available.

Rajesh: So it kind of teaches you how to be resourceful at the same time?

Kristin: Yes, definitely.

Rajesh: You seem to put a strong emphasis on staying open to possibilities even after you have decided on a course of action. Switching plans is not something a lot of entrepreneurs want to do after they have laid out a course of action. What would you say to them about that?

Kristin: You simply have to stay open to other options as they present themselves. It doesn’t mean that you have worked the problem solving process wrong or that you made a bad decision. You simply make the best decision you can at the time you decide to explore solutions. But you need to keep in mind that you are EXPLORING solutions – your path is not etched in stone. There is no way possible for you to know everything about your chosen solution, or all of the possible solutions to a problem, when you are brainstorming. There is no way. You can research until you are blue in the face, but you need to stay open and flexible incase better solutions present themselves. Or, perhaps as you are exploring your chosen solution you realize that it is not the best fit. No problem. When you know the problem solving process you know that there are always other options. You probably already thought of some. Look back at your brainstorming and see if with the new knowledge you have gained from your exploration can find another solution that might work for you.

Knowing the problem solving process really does help take the stress away and keep you flexible and open as you explore. Life is constantly changing you need the skills to roll with it and stay open to changing your plans. Entrepreneurs especially.

Look at Viagra – they were looking for a pharmaceutical that could alleviate chest pains, well they rolled with life as life presented them new options for their drug and look where that has taken them. You need to stay open.

Rajesh: In the book you also talk about Co-Unscribbling and how that is important for business owners to keep in mind. Can you expand on this a bit?

Kristin: Co-Unscribbling is all about problems solving with others. I whole heartedly think that as you work the problem solving process you need to involve as many people, as you can, that are potentially going to be effected by the solutions.

Nobody likes being told what to do. Even if they are an employee. If you don’t involve your employees in your solution finding process you are just telling them what to do. Who would like working for someone that just bossed them around like that? Everyone likes to have their thoughts respected and considered which is why co-unscribbling is so important. When you involve others in the process they feel heard, validated, and will ultimately take more ownership in the solution. When they know the thought pattern behind why solutions were chosen they will also more happily participate in the solution.

So even if you can’t involve all your employees, make sure they understand the thought process you used and the reason you are exploring the solution you are exploring. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment where we are telling a friend or co-worker something and they suddenly get it. They say, “Ah! I see!” Once they understand the thoughts and reasoning, have you noticed how they suddenly become more excited about your solution and start to readily offer even more ideas? The same thing doesn’t happen if you just say, “Do this because I said so.”

Plus more minds on a problem is always better, isn’t it?

Rajesh: Any last parting thoughts?

Kristin: Yeah, thank you. I’m hoping I have not given the wrong impression. By talking about problems, I don’t mean that you should focus on your problems. Quite the opposite. By talking about problem solving I hope to quickly shift people from focusing on problems, and what they lack, to focusing on what they truly desire and then showing them a process to figure out how to make that a reality in their lives. This process really is about taking your dreams, or scribbles on a napkin, and making them come to life. It really can make life less stressful when you know how to solve problems. I hope people have fun with it. Life is fun! You often have to deal with problems on the way, but none of them need to be debilitating. I hope people take time to enjoy the journey – problems and all.

And thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about this.

Note: To get a free excerpt of Unscribbling: the art of problem solving and fulfilling your desires, please go to http://unscribbling.com/