Lesson 1 | The Rise of the Problem Solver

Hello. My name is Jeff. I am the creator of Plywood People and the curator of this journey you are starting. My hands, hours and love have been poured into this project. My hope is that it feels personal and that it meets your needs. More than just theories and bits of information, we’ve put this together hoping to impact persons and projects in concrete ways. This is why I want you to know me, and hopefully I will meet you soon (it has become so easy in a digital world to connect with people). We have created this study so you can learn from our experiences, mistakes, and successes. Additionally, we hope to introduce you to a community of people you may not have known both locally and across the globe.

Plywood People is a non-profit in Atlanta that leads a community of start-ups doing good.

Over the last three years, we have walked alongside more than 500 projects that are contributing to making this world better. And now... you are part of this community. Welcome to the family. If I were to begin with the end in mind, my hope is that you become a greater problem solver than I could ever be. I believe that anything significant will be bigger than me, and you have the potential to make that significance a reality.

We believe there is more than one way to make a difference. This journey will share with you many stories of different paths that will influence your future, but don’t simply replicate what others have done. We hope this process will inspire you to think in previously unimaginable spaces resulting in new creations for some of the world’s greatest problems. May your Path be unique to your story, fitting to your context and meeting the needs of your people.

So, as you read, watch, and share in your local community, I hope that you make something better than I could ever dream. I know you see things that I don’t see and have experiences that not a single other person has lived. I believe with all of us working together, better is possible. Together, we create better.

Now, let’s get started.

On a personal level, we all want to find purpose in our personal lives, we want our work to matter, and we cannot rest at night because something is causing us concern. In our communities or maybe in our work, we see things that are not right and want to create solutions. It’s people like you and me who have a gut level vision for things to be different. We believe that better is possible, and we are willing to work to see it come to life. We know that solving problems is not easy, but if we make things a little better, it will be worth the fight for progress.

What if there was a community of problems solvers that used their abilities to impact our culture, especially the hurting, poor and under-resourced in our communities? What if there was a culture in business that sought problems out instead of pushing problems away? What if there were people that looked at problems as essential opportunities for progress in making life more beautiful? We are that community; you and me and all of us learning and attempting to put into practice what we are learning through this course.

This is what unites us: a hope for a better tomorrow and a responsibility to be part of the solution. This is our Path.

In the next phase of Path, we will gain clarity on the problem. I would recommend walking through the next four questions slowly and thoughtfully. These questions might be very difficult, but they are foundational to the future. Take these exercises seriously, as they will define where you are going and why you are doing it. Write your answers down, not just to get through the questions, but to begin diving into how you need to engage this curriculum. Challenge yourself with every answer you give: can you make the answer more concise? Can the circle you have drawn get smaller or more specific? We can provide the framework, but you have to build the walls. The goal is not merely to get it done but to thoughtfully engage.

1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?

I have asked this question to hundreds who have launched businesses, non-profits and creative projects. They initially think this is the easy question, but rarely can they answer what it is that they are actually solving. It is easy to answer this question with a solution that you have creatively concepted, but unless you can name the problem in a short concise way, you will never know if you are solving the problem. It’s easy to create programs; it is hard to solve problems. Philip Seymour Hoffman said, “Creating something is all about problem-solving.” If you aren’t solving a problem, it will be hard to stick with what you’re trying to create.

To make things more interesting, we can apply a great example of simple, yet effective messaging. For example, billboards on highways and interstates have an unspoken rule: they cannot have more than seven words on them. If there are too many words on the billboards, it will be impossible to read while driving on the interstate. So, what is the problem you are solving in seven words or less?

2. How are you uniquely solving the problem?

Interestingly, you are not the first person who has attempted to solve this problem. As a result, start your journey by researching who has come before you and what did or did not work in the past. Often leaders can become cynical to people exploring new ideas, but don’t be brought down by their outlook. Instead, learn from what they know to be true. Learn from the past before you create the new future. You may have heard the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know”. Find out what others know; it will make your new solution better.

As a person who has the opportunity to hear pitches from budding problem solvers often, very seldom do I hear fresh ideas that I want to spend my time, energy, relationships and money investing in. Ask yourself and those around you how your project is uniquely creating a solution to the problem. Innovation means bringing new solutions to old problems, not tweaking solutions to previous solutions. If the previous solutions worked, there would be no need for new problem solvers to emerge.

Pearl Bailey was an actress, singer, and a Tony award winner in 1968 for the all-black production of Hello, Dolly. Her hard-earned advice regarding creative ideas is to, “never, never rest contented with any circle of ideas, but always be certain that a wider one is still possible.”

Force yourself to innovate beyond the status quo and beyond the already socially accepted solution. Ask yourself, “Is what I am creating an innovative new solution to this problem?” If another solution already exists, offer to join the organization in their work. Please, do not recreate what others are doing. A critical aspect of being a problem solver is to avoid recreating what others are already doing.

3. If there were no barriers to solving the problem, what would you do?

This is your chance to dream. Dream bigger than you have ever dreamed! Most people aim for the bare minimum just to keep something alive, but true problem solvers take the time to think about what really needs to happen to solve a problem.

My friend Jack Alexander is a serial entrepreneur in our community who has an applicable analogy for problem solvers that often speaks to others. He asks, “Are you fighting a war using a strategy based on land or air?” Historically, wars were solely fought on the ground when there were only two trenches with land between enemies. The two opposing groups would make little progress by fighting literally five feet ahead at a time. This is the way most organizations are fighting in relation to their problem: slow progress or maybe no progress at all, lost in the day to day need to survive and losing the bigger picture of ending the war. Problem solvers need to find a way to fight from the air, to see the battle from above.

Innovators with this method can potentially see what others do not see and gain perspective to make a more impactful and efficient change. This is the air war. But you cannot fight the air war without dreaming outside of your means. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to blow your budget. What I am asking you to do in this exercise is to dream as though your limitations were all removed. This often leads us to find unique ideas that we may not have considered before.

If you were to looking down at the problem you are trying to solve from an air perspective, what would you see? How would you solve the problem if money was not your limitation? What would you do, and how would you do it? Give yourself time to dream bigger than you think is possible.

4. Who do you need to know to make that solution happen?

You have an idea, you have a problem you are trying to solve, and you have a big dream that may seem insurmountable. To make the solution you have dreamed about happen, it comes down to three things: time, money and people. With the right amount of money, enough time and the right people, this is possible. Easier said than done right? It’s not as difficult as you might imagine.

Take a moment and start with people. Make a list of ten people you need to know to make this idea happen. This list can include people you already know who have the skills you need. It should also include people you do not know personally but who have passions, experiences, and expertise in areas that are vital to your solution. Initially, you might think that you do not have any connections to these people, but you may be surprised how easily accessible they are. I start by researching each person through social media, looking up their websites and contact information. Once you have this list, you can start talking about them with others. You may find out that you have a connection you did not realize through a mutual friend. The other daring move is to contact these people and ask for some advice, because you never know what could happen. Most people love to be the expert and to share their wisdom. Think about 10 people you need to know to make your solution happen.

Now, it may feel like you merely answered four questions, but in answering these questions you determined:

1. the problem you are solving.

2. if your solution is worth pursuing.

3. how to think bigger and fight against the limitations.

4. who needs to join you in this work.

This is an essential start to the Path ahead.

Now, as you are engaging a long journey to solve a problem in your personal life, community or globally, I need a moment to be real. The majority of ideas and start-ups fail, to which you say, “Jeff, thanks for the motivational first reading!”

This may be a very discouraging statistic to hear, but it is also a realistic perspective for expectations. I have failed many times: hundreds, and maybe thousands of times. However, I learned that every failed experiment resulted in greater learning for me as a student, greater respect from my peers for overcoming my fears and ultimately greater influence for me as a leader. The mere process of trying is part of your problem solving journey. If changing the world was easy, everyone would do it, but it’s the few dedicated individuals who put themselves in a vulnerable state to the world who have the greatest chance to change it. Honestly, the reason I get to write this training is because of the amount of failure I have experienced.

So now that you have done some of the hard work, here is my personal advice as you begin your problem solving adventure:

Be healthy. Turn off your phone. Go on a date with your significant other. Have friends. Keep friends. Work outside of your home. Don’t let every conversation in life be about the problem you are solving. Find things that replenish you outside of the work. Go to sleep. Don’t stop playing with kids. Change your environment consistently. Take vacations even when you can’t afford it or don’t have time. Drink coffee. Drink a lot of coffee. Have back burner lists for the ideas that are distracting you from the current idea. Go to the gym. Eat healthier. Seek mentors. Learn to ask for help. Fail often and fast. Lean into others. Generously contribute to others’ projects; it will bring you energy. Be a problem solver, but don’t get burned out while creating your solution.

The next phase of Path requires gaining clarity on the problem. I would recommend walking through the next questions slowly and thoughtfully. These questions might be very difficult, but they are foundational to the future. Take these exercises seriously, as they will define where you are going and why you are doing it. Challenge yourself with every answer you give: Can you make the answer more concise? Can the circle you have drawn get smaller or more specific?

We can provide the framework, but you have to build the walls. The goal is not merely to get it done but to thoughtfully engage. Answer the following questions in the comments below.

1. What is the problem you are solving in seven words or less?

2. How are you uniquely solving the problem?

3. If there were no barriers to solving the problem, what would you do?

4. Who do you need to know to make that solution happen?

While you're at it, copy/paste the problem you are solving (question 1) to this google doc, and add any additional information you would like for future reference.

Discussion

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