Best Problem-Solving Tip: Don’t Be Afraid to Break Stuff

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Reprinted from Chris Mittelstaedt's column Eureka on

Sometimes there are problems  simply too thorny and overwhelming to solve the usual ways; they require you to think differently. But because you're used to thinking a certain way, you get stuck. So what's the best way to unstick your thinking?

If you’re like my dad, you pick up a sledgehammer.

When I was 19 on a road trip from the suburbs of Philadelphia to an Independence Day weekend with family friends in Vermont, I drove the family station wagon into the back of a van full of seniors outside of Albany, New York.  Our Volvo crumpled against the rock solid van. Luckily everyone was fine (including the guy who was already wearing a thick, white neck brace due to a prior case of whiplash).

The only tow-truck driver I could get charged me triple because of the holiday and then dropped me off at a garage full of bikers having a July 4th gathering and pig roast.

When my dad arrived later, he made a bee-line for the tow yard to look at the wreck. I was sure that the car was totaled–there was no way we could drive it.  He studied it for a while and then told me to go and find a sledgehammer. I went over to the garage and politely interrupted the pig roast. Maybe because I was the only guy in the room wearing both green and pink they looked at me with genuine concern.   “You sure you know how to use this?” someone asked. No, in fact, I did not but I kept that to myself.

When I brought it back over to Dad he got up on the hood of the red Volvo and raised the hammer over his head.   “What are you doing?” I yelled.  He looked at me like I was the crazy one. I kept quiet as he proceeded to hammer the hood down and bend the metal fenders off the tires so the car would drive.

When he was finished he looked at me and said: “If you want to salvage something out of a bad situation, you’ve got to be realistic. Readjust your thinking to the situation. And don’t be afraid to break stuff if you have to—especially if it is already broken.”

I think about this story and my dad a great deal when I think about problem solving and innovation. Too often people think innovation necessarily means more—and more sophisticated—technology. Not in my mind. Innovation is really just the ability to see through the road blocks that are either put upon us or created by us, so that we can clearly unravel the right problem and come up with solutions.

The problem was not that I needed to fix our car and return it to its previous state; in the immediate term, the car needed to be driveable. And that was exactly the problem my dad succeeded in solving.

Innovating in your business happens the same way: You must be able to see the right problem and solve it. Often this means forcing yourself to accept hard truths (that Volvo was probably never going to look the same again) and letting go of your assumptions (trying to make it look the same was not the most pressing concern).

This is all easier said than done, of course. Still, I think the sledgehammer analogy works. What are you trying to accomplish in its most basic form? Most business owners are simply trying to get from Point A to Point B: expand the business from a local to a national market, jump into a new product space, boost sales by a certain percentage.

Sometimes all you need to do is hammer out the kinks until you get going again.


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