How to solve a big problem (even if you don’t know how)

In productivity, getting things done by neville

Take the humble screwdriver. A simple, common-or-garden-variety flat screwdriver. It seems like such a simple tool, but it can actually be used for a hundred different things. You can open paint cans, poke holes in drywall, use the back end as a makeshift hammer, pry open a stuck window, an icepick, a gardening tool, to get the mud off your shoes, a back scratcher, …

And, of course, you can use it to drive or loosen flat-head (also called slotted) screws.

We’re all a bit like a flat-head screwdriver. We can do a lot of stuff, but we don’t realise that we can until we’re put in a situation where the only tool we have is, well, a screwdriver (or ourselves).

I don’t know how to do this!

When we’re building a business, there’s a lot of stuff we know we can’t do. We may be good at some stuff (for example, writing code or training future leaders) but we don’t know how to create marketing material. Or we may not know how to sell.

When we run into these roadblocks, we stop. We may ask our friend Google, or we may ask an expert. We find out that it’s going to take a lot of money to do something, or a lot of time or (usually) a bit of both.

We instinctively know that we can outsource some stuff (for example, creating marketing material) but other stuff, like sales, we have to learn to do ourselves. So we look for a marketer or someone who can train us.

But the truth is that even for stuff we know we can outsource, we actually know how to do some of it. We just have to break it down into smaller parts.

This is called deconstructing the problem.

The art of deconstruction

Just about every complex thing can be broken down into smaller, less complex parts. For example, lets say that you have to build a website for your business.

You may feel that you don’t know the first thing about building a website. But you actually know how to do some of it. Let’s break this one problem (build a website) down into smaller parts – it may look something like this:

  • Determine what you want the website to do for you (advertise your products or services, establish your authority, generate leads, and so on).
  • Decide what you want the front page to do (get people to buy stuff, segment your audience, get them to download a lead magnet, etc).
  • Decide what other pages you need. An “about” page? A contact page? A list of products, or events?
  • Do you want a header or footer that looks the same on all pages? What would it contain?

So, you’ve already broken the “build a website” problem into smaller problems. You can now take each of these smaller problems and break them down into even smaller problems.

Take the front page of your website. You can break this down into smaller problems too:

  • What’s the first thing I want people to see?
  • What do I want people to do?
  • What are they looking for?
  • How do I tell them what’s important to know about me and/or my products or services?

You’re getting the drift of how this works. You’ve taken one problem (build a website for my business) and broken it down into smaller problems. Then you’ve taken each of the smaller problems and broken them down into even smaller problems.

This process is called the art of deconstruction.

The art of deconstruction

The art of deconstruction is the process of taking any problem and breaking it down into a set of smaller problems. If you can solve all of the smaller problems you will have solved the big problem. And if any of the smaller problems are still too big to solve, you can repeat the process and break it down into even smaller problems.

Mind maps are great tools for breaking big problems down into smaller problems. Here’s the start of a mind map for the “build a website” problem:

You can stop the process of deconstruction when:

  • you know how to solve each of the smaller problems (and therefore the ig problem); or
  • you don’t know how to break it down any further.

In practice, you will find that you can actually solve a lot more than you originally thought. You will also need to run through the breakdown a couple of times to answer the question: is this everything I need to solve the big problem? Run through the deconstruction a couple of times until you’re satisfied you can solve the big problem, or you’ve reached a point where you know how to solve some of the smaller problems but not others. Then you can decide what to do about it.

Deconstructing marketing and sales collateral

Let’s take another example (one suggested by a friend of mine). A business needs to create marketing and sales collateral for their business. When we think marketing and sales collateral, we think of a web site, brochures, product sheets, and so on.

Let’s deconstruct this problem into smaller problems.

Marketing and sales is a process that starts with creating awareness and progressing all the way through to making a sale. In the Tornado Method we break this down into 5 stages called the Revenue Engine:

The “big” problem here is “we need marketing and sales collateral”. The first step in breaking the problem down is to ask “what marketing and sales collateral do we need in each of the 5 stages of the Revenue Engine?”

Now we can look at each stage individually, and the first thing that makes life a lot easier is when we realise we only need marketing and sales collateral for the first three stages of the Revenue Engine: marketing, lead nurturing and sales.

We can now look at what marketing (or sales) collateral in each stage. We may come up with something like this:

  • Marketing: web site
  • Lead nurturing: lead magnet, case studies.
  • Sales: product brochures, pricing sheet.

We’ve already taken one big problem (we need marketing and sales collateral) and broken it down into 5 smaller problems (a web site, lead magnet, case studies, product brochures and a pricing sheet).

Each one of these problems can now be broken down further into smaller problems. For each of the pieces of collateral, we need to decide:

  • who is the audience?
  • what do they know when they get to see each particular piece of collateral?
  • what do we want them to know when they’ve read through it?
  • what is in the collateral (the content)?
  • what will it look like (how do we make it attractive and usable)?
  • what do we want potential clients to do when they’ve read it?

You can now solve each of these problems, or at least some of them and outsource the others.

Where deconstruction fails

There are two big things that happen when we deconstruct a problem:

  • by making the problem smaller, it becomes easier to deal with it; and
  • instead of worrying about a big problem (and not making any progress) we can actually start solving some of the smaller problems.

Of course, we still have to deal with the smaller problems we don’t know how to solve. In the case of marketing and sales collateral, we may still have to get someone to write the final copy (or edit what we produced) and make it pretty. But that’s a lot smaller problem to solve.

But deconstruction can fail because we don’t know what we don’t know. For example, we may not know that to create good marketing and sales material requires that we also understand our target client very well. And that we have to capture that in a marketing persona, or avatar.

Don’t let this lack of knowledge stop you. You’re going to be at least 80% right most of the time, and the gaps can be filled in by the experts when you call them in. One word of advice: call them in sooner rather than later. Expert advice from the outside will help you do better deconstruction and make their life easier when you do ask them to do their bits.

Summary (and another example)

We can solve big problems by breaking them down into smaller problems. This is called the art of deconstruction.

You can stop deconstructing a problem when you know how to solve all the smaller problems, or when you’ve reached a point where you don’t know how to deconstruct a problem any more.

You’re going to find that you actually know how to solve more parts of a problem that you thought when you started out.

Don’t let a lack of knowledges stop you from deconstructing a problem. You’re going to be 80% right most of the time, and expert advice will help you get where you need to be a lot faster than you thought possible.

Here’s a last example.

I’m building a self-study course titled The Lifestyle Business Foundation Course. The course is designed to help entrepreneurs build a solid foundation for a business that will give them the lifestyle they want. Apart from the lifestyle angle, this is nothing short of a course on how to build a business, and that can be a monumental task to put into a course.

So I broke the course down into smaller problems, and the smaller problems into even smaller ones, and so on. Here’s what the top level of the course looks like:

Building this course is still a monumental task (or a labour of love, as I call it). But it’s made a lot easier because I’m only focusing on one part of the course at a time, and within that part on one topic. By the time I’ve completed all of the topics I will have a course.

(Get on the waitlist for more information on this course here.)

Yet another use for a screwdriver

You can also use a screwdriver to cook hot dogs over a campfire. I recommend you use a long one, and that you clean it thoroughly before you do. And don’t tell your mom – she won’t be impressed.

Next time you’re stuck with a problem, start deconstructing it. You may find you can use a screwdriver to solve at least some of the smaller problems.