Tough problems made easy: think like a scientist

I’ve had a few career changes – big career changes. My regular readers will know that my meandering path started off many moons ago in the lab, and that I spent 8 years at university studying science. Then I took a hard left turn and became a restaurant owner. After that, I became what I am now, a small business consultant and writer, growing small businesses. The most common question I am asked about this journey is “do you feel like you wasted all those years, learning things that you now don’t use?” Of course the answer is a big NO, but that answer does warrant some unpacking. In fact, I would go further and say that I think being a scientist actually gives me an edge in small business.

Most of us would agree that problem solving is up there with the most important skills for business. Tough problems are a way of life when you have your own business, and your ability to ace them can be the difference between winning and floundering. Sometimes your problem can be your marketing not working, or finances that don’t add up, finding and retaining great team members or your business heading in in the wrong direction. The most hairy of challenges can be made less daunting by thinking like a scientist.

Just your bare wits

When I started my doctorate, in front of me was a blank sheet, with a daunting 4 years to research my topic and ultimately to produce a 20,000 word thesis of original knowledge. No-one had studied that exact topic before, so everything had to be based on the evidence I produced myself. When there was a roadblock, there was no book to go to and no-one who knew the answer. This is boot camp for problem solving, with nothing but your reasoning and knowledge to work it out. In business, I find myself using these skills all the time. When a hard hard problem comes along, I always go back to first principles and ask “OK, so what do I know here?” From there, you can start building a solution, or uncover the other information that you need to do it.

All about the data

In science, data reigns supreme and all decisions are based on the evidence. Since everything has to be justified, there is no guesswork and all information has to be collected with rigorous research methods. Once you have reliable information, making decisions becomes a lot easier and trends easier to pick. In small business, unfortunately there is almost no data collected; average sales, enquiry numbers, conversions or operational metrics are rarely collected. Usually it is quite easy to collect, but needs to diligently collected and plotted regularly (like every week). These vital signs give you live information on the health of your business. Would you know if your web traffic was lower one week to the next? If your conversions from your web visitors to sale had changed? What about if profit margins were slipping in one product line. You should.

Back to the books.

The scariest, most difficult questions need new information and new knowledge, and scientists will go find it. Even if there is not an exact answer to your question, there will be relevant research that pushes your knowledge closer to an answer and facilitates your final decision. Scientists know that every piece of extra knowledge helps, and will fit into the puzzle when you least expect it. Business owners should be learning, growing and building that most valuable resource: your mind.

For me, the world of business was much more intriguing than a career in academia or research, but I am very thankful for the mindset and mental discipline that my academic marathon ingrained in me. Always returning to the purity of the question, the importance of data and the search for the answer will always be there. For you, skip the 8 years of study, but you can feel empowered to solve even the most difficult problems with a few simple tools.
Dr. Warren Harmer

Posted on 09/24/2015 in Small Business

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