Why Problems Are An Entrepreneur’s Best Friend

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.

When is a problem not a problem? When it’s your key to achievement and success as a leader.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green, a company that supports young people’s efforts to improve the world around them, writes about how she imagined if someone yelled out, “What’s your problem?” on a crowded subway car. And what if, instead of grousing about what injustices were done to them, each person announced a problem he or she had dedicated themselves to, such as poverty, racial injustice, or access to healthful foods?  There would be purpose, meaning, and the promise of action.

This is exactly what successful entrepreneurs do: We identify the problems we want to solve: a gap in the marketplace, a chronic health problem like stress, an inefficient way of delivering human services. Often we care passionately about these problems, and their specificity gives us something concrete to respond to and create around. Our passion combined with the urgency of the problem drive us to make change, develop new ideas, and catalyze people in order to solve it.

The process is dynamic, collaborative, multi-faceted. There’s rarely a single solution. Entrepreneurs often have to pivot from a first idea or attempt because their first idea doesn’t work or isn’t scalable. The ability to pivot is crucial because it leads you to a better, more efficient and effective way to solve the problem.

So, now I ask you, what is YOUR problem? What are you wedded to, driven toward, aching to achieve or solve or fix or expand?

Define it. Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem–and 5 minutes solving it. How you think about, define, and describe the problem is critical to your ability to address it effectively. How much time are you allowing yourself to dream, ponder, visualize, to do some cocktail-napkin sketches and talk to people who share your passion or serve as trusted sounding boards?

Reframe it. Maybe you keep running up against the same obstacle over and over. You think, “I could do this, if only…” This is dangerous thinking. Why? Because it points to external obstacles as the reason you can’t do a thing, and as long as you blame external circumstances, you will not only be limited in your thinking, but more stressed. And you can’t access your best thinking when you’re stressed. In a recent post I talked about how reframing your stress is key to freeing yourself from its chokehold. Same goes for your own creative problem solving. Those limits will often be the catalyst for your best ideas and solutions, because they give you something to push against.

Own it. You won’t ever be willing to take risks if you don’t feel committed to the problem. Are you dodging problems, or are you ready to take one on in a big way? Once you have really done the hard work of defining and comprehending all that’s involved, then it’s yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever change or shift–but if you don’t own it to begin with, you’ll never have the momentum to make progress on it.

Pivot. Now here’s the caveat to that last point: You may set out to solve one problem, and come out solving a completely different one. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship–your best ideas can surprise you. But they can’t if you stay locked onto one idea of How Things Should Be, one way of getting there. You may call it persistence; I call it a waste of energy and time.

You not only must allow your problem and approach to evolve, but you must be willing to cut your losses, switch horses, change up the game when you realize what you’re doing isn’t working. I know too many people who won’t let go because they’re afraid it means they’re a failure, or wrong. That’s not reality; that’s story (and ego). And it’s getting in your way. The best entrepreneurs stay light on their feet. And just as they’re unafraid to tackle a problem, they’re also ok with letting one go.