I’ve had a few career changes, big career changes. My ‘Bear Grylls’ style career path has taken me from doctoral scientist (eight years at university studying science to the highest degree possible), to restaurant owner, then finally to small business consultant and writer.
Perplexed new acquaintances often ask the question “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 further explanation. How is it that a scientist can succeed in the world of business? I would even go further, to say I think being a scientist actually gives me an edge in small business.
Most of us would agree that problem solving is part and parcel of running a business. From marketing not working to finances that don’t add up, finding and retaining great team members to helplessly watching your business head in the wrong direction. These challenges present themselves on a daily basis.
My belief is the most hairy of challenges can be made less daunting simply by thinking like a scientist.
Make good use of your bare wits
When I started my doctorate, in front of me was a blank sheet. Ahead of me was the daunting prospect of four years to research my topic and ultimately produce a 20,000-word thesis of original knowledge. No-one had studied my exact topic before so everything had to be based on evidence I produced myself. When there was a roadblock, there was no book to go to and no-one who knew the answer. Given I could only call on my own reasoning and knowledge to work things out, that experience turned out to be a boot camp for problem solving.
In business, I find myself using these skills all the time. When a hard problem comes along, I always go back to the basics of: “OK, so what do I know here?” From there, I can start building a solution, or uncover the other information I need to do it.
It’s all about the data
In science, data reigns supreme and all decisions are based on 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 are easier to pick.
In small business, unfortunately, very little data is ever collected. Numbers like average sales, enquiry numbers, conversions or operational metrics should be diligently tracked 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? Imagine the problem-solving power you’d have if you did.
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 every piece of extra knowledge helps, and will often 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. My ability to return to the purity of the question, the importance of data and the search for the answer will always be there.
For you, feel free to skip the eight years of study! But hopefully you now feel empowered to solve even the most difficult problems with the simple problem solving tools I’ve described above.