Applying Problem-Solving to Business Strategy

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” -Charles F. Kettering, American engineer and inventor

Andy Harris is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and has written many books on programming. He was one of my professors at IUPUI and is responsible for developing STAIR, an acronym for a general problem-solving strategy. While originally developed for computer programmers, this same strategy can be used for solving a problem, finding a job, or starting a new business.


I’ve written about STAIR before in the Business Analyst Glossary of Terms, but here it is again in more detail below. I’ve quoted the original content, but condensed it for clarity:

  • SState the Problem – “Take the time to describe carefully to yourself what you are trying to accomplish…Some problems are best described with sketches or other tools (like flowcharts and data diagrams)”.
  • TTools for the Job – “A tool might be a command, a button on a toolbar, a selection on a drop-down menu, a strategy, a program, or something else, depending on the kind of job…and the context.”
  • AAlgorithm Development – “An algorithm is…a strategy or plan of action….[that uses the] tools from the previous step…[and determines] how those tools will be used to solve the problem.”
  • IImplementation of the Algorithm – “The actual process of translating our human thought into something the computer can understand…Implementation can mean ‘just do it’.”
  • RRefinement –  “It is normal…to attempt a solution several times before the problem is solved. A skilled problem solver will analyze what happened, review the other steps, and try again.”

State the Problem

Is there a way to use STAIR to analyze a person, job, or business? I’m currently taking the Coursera course, Foundations of Business Strategy, which is meant to, “develop your ability to think strategically by providing you the tools for conducting a strategic analysis.” Could identifying the problem, what tools you have, and your proposed method to to solve it be used in the business analysis process?

Tools for the Job

As a IT business analyst I have a specific skill set, background, and experience level that is different from a doctor, lawyer, or programmer. There is a limited amount of jobs I can take and businesses that I can create. Harris states, “Knowing the capabilities of…computer applications…[is one of] the main ways you add new tools to your toolbox…As you gain experience, you will constantly be adding new tools.”

Algorithm Development

Algorithm is just a fancy word for a set of well-defined instructions for carrying out a particular task. In other words, it’s like a process. This is different from a heuristic, which is a technique that helps you look for an answer. A heuristic tells you only how to look, not what to find. In this way, STAIR itself is a heuristic that contains an algorithm as Harris notes, “The process is the same regardless of the complexity of the problem.”

Implementation of the Algorithm

This is where you “do the work” and start processing the algorithm using the tools in order to solve the stated problem. The process would include making a list of all skills, education, experience, equipment, connections, and clients a person has. The next step would be to compare this list to job and business requirements to look for best-fit. When this process is complete, a list of jobs and business ideas is created.


Harris says, “We like to think if we learn a skill and prepare ourselves properly, we can solve a problem on the first attempt. Experience shows us this is not usually the case.” The result of the comparison was highly limited to the brainstorming process and what Google Search results provided. As a result the list was far from extensive or complete and the algorithm steps should be reviewed for a better way.

Each unsuccessful attempt should bring you closer to an understanding of the problem and its solution. Refinement usually means going back and looking at the previous steps critically. Ask yourself if you really defined the problem properly. If so, have you used all the possible tools at your disposal? Are you sure there is not a tool available that you have overlooked? Did you choose the best algorithm for the job? Did you implement the solution properly? (You would be amazed at the number of computer errors that are the result of simple typing or spelling errors!) Again, you will find that practice will make you much more confident at this critical stage of the process.”

Begin With the End in Mind

Indianapolis IT Business AnalystI know enough about myself to know that the jobs and businesses I’m able to do and start right now are not the ones I want to be doing or running in the future. I also know that I don’t currently have the skillset to do them. I believe that programming is an essential skill for the types of jobs and companies that I want to have so that is why I am learning how to use Ruby on Rails. Like Andy Harris said, “If you don’t know where you are trying to go, how will you know when you get there?”

Thinking About a Starting a New Business?

I’ve been thinking about starting a new business lately and I wanted to share my process with others as I do it to help those who might be thinking of starting their own business.

Every business starts with an idea. That idea may come from you or from someone asking you to do their idea, but it all starts with an idea. Five years ago I had the idea to start my own web design business because friends and family kept asking me to develop web sites for them. I wasn’t really interested in it at first, but once I started getting more clients, I was hooked – especially when I saw the paychecks come in, but I had a rocky start. I wished there was someone there to help me get started when I was starting up.

Inspired by Jim Halperts new business and coming off my last successful business, I have decided to start a new business on the side. One mistake I typically make is to get hung up on the business name and category too soon and too often. I often also jump to see what my future competitors are doing in that space. Instead what I should be doing is creating a product that someone would actually be willing to pay for and then asking them if they would pay for it. This is called customer development, but I don’t always do it. That’s got to change.

Sell First

One thing I like to do is to come up with an elevator pitch and make blanket statements like “I’d like to create a for HR.” While I don’t want to get hung up on a business name just yet, I can’t move on until I’ve at least given the project a name so in this example I call it “Workflow” which I know I won’t be able to use, but that’s why it’s just a project name. Once I have a project name I start collecting information about the project in a hodgepodge of places from email threads to Evernote to Dropbox. All of this stuff is easy. That’s because it’s all fluff. You’ve got to get to the point where you have a minimally viable product (MVP), which is something you can sell. If someone doesn’t buy it, you don’t have a company. I call this philosophy “Sell First”.

If your idea is a service then quantify, quantify, quantify your idea. Make what I call an “Applebee’s Menu” of your services. Draw pictures that explain what you do. If you’re not a graphic designer, then hire one or draw them yourself using a pencil and paper. The point is to level the playing field between you and your customer by creating a common interface (a picture) that explains to them what it is you are going to do for them and how much it costs. Think about what it’s like when you go into McDonalds: there is a giant menu of pictures on a board. You point to the picture you want with the number next to it and both you and McDonalds knows exactly what you’re going to get. That’s powerful and there are few service professionals who operate this way. Even if you don’t have a product, you can carve products out of the services you provide. Once you have them, ask someone to buy one. If they don’t, go back to the drawing board – literally.

Simplify Your Idea

The hardest part (I’ve found) about new ideas or organizations is in restricting yourself. Your business idea needs to be one sentence, maybe three words. A while back I read a book called The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki, which I have also listed in 13 Books Every Entrepreneur Can Benefit From Reading. Even if you don’t read the whole book, the first chapter is very good and prescribes you to go after a “mantra”, “make meaning”, “define your business model”. and create “milestones, assumptions, and tasks”. Maybe you’re already doing some of these things. If so, good.

I’m currently consulting with a new startup that wanted to start 5 organizations in three locations all at once. Part of my job there has been to reel them in and get them to focus on doing one thing first and doing that well. In the book, Little Bets by Peter Sims he talks about how successful companies try things on a small scale before they build out. Here’s an 8 minute video if you’re not interested in the book. Part of the reason I think people (including me) tend to want to make their business (or business ideas) wide in the beginning is because they aren’t sure what will work. Little Bets should help tease that out.

Who Asked You to Start a Business, Anyway?

In 2011 I wrote about all of the challenges you’ll be up against when you go to start a new business. Everyone from the government, to your neighbors, to other businesses, to your family will be trying to stop you every step of the way. But none of those compare with the biggest obstacle: yourself. You can plan all you want, but eventually someone has to Do the Work. While I believe management is important, it can be used for creative avoidance. If you can’t figure out what to do next, just do the next important thing. If you feel overwhelmed or depressed; if you feel like you can’t move, just do one thing. Do anything.


When to Quit Your Day Job

First of all, don’t quit your day job. At least not until you’ve made the decision and can stick with it for at least three days straight. While I started my own business on the side in 2007, I worked full time until 2011 when I quit my day job. I didn’t quit because I was making more on my side projects than my day job. I quit because I wasn’t having an impact, I wasn’t being utilized, and I felt like I was wasting my life. There were things I wanted to do and they didn’t include being 33% utilized for 8 hours a day. I would literally spend 2 hours in the bathroom a day and another 2 hours a day watching a movie at my desk. My manager had nothing for me to do and was absent most of the time. There was zero pressure on me to succeed and management was perfectly happy with me doing nothing at all. Everyone was happy except me.

In How to Work a Life of Purpose I share how I learned what does make me happy. It turns out that following your passions has little to do with it. It matters much more that you adopt a craftsman’s mindset and deliberately practice to get over the performance plateau that so many of us reach, but few exceed. Once you begin to get better at something, you begin liking it more and happiness is a natural result. Quitting your job will not make you happy. Being the best at something can put you on a path to being happy. Being the best at something can allow you the career capital to start your own business or gain more autonomy in your existing job. What people desire the most is trust, respect, and autonomy in their jobs. You are responsible for building your own meaning and managing your own growth. No one else can do that for you.

Starting a [Successful] Business is Hard

Starting a business is fun. It’s exciting and full of opportunities. It’s easy to say what you’re going to do, make lists, name things, put them into categories, compare and contrast ideas, and draw stuff on a whiteboard. It’s easy to tell other people about your idea and write blog posts about it and tweet about it on Twitter. The hard part is making something useful, something that adds value to the transaction. The hard part is getting someone to pay money for that thing. The hard part is not giving up and not believing your own self-doubt when it inevitably creeps in. The hard part is not listening to the doubters who will tell you it’s okay to quit, that there is safety in the doing what everyone else does. But don’t listen to them. Do the work. Make the world better. We need you to help us. There are problems in the world that still need fixed.

We still don’t have good ways to desalinate sea water or cheap ways to make electricity. We still don’t have cures for all kinds of disease or good methods for distributing ways to prevent them. These are big problems, but I can get more specific. There is currently no way to sync a Microsoft Exchange password on an iPhone with Microsoft Exchange. It’s a manual process that the user has to do. This one problem affects IT departments all over the globe and every time a user changes their password in Windows, their email on their phone stops working. That seems like a problem someone would be able to work on and there are plenty of companies all across the world who would gladly pay for that solution. If you know of one, please let me know in the comments and please share your new business ideas with me once they are up and running. Do the work! Cheers.

Jim Halpert’s Marketing Company, Athlead

Jim Halpert is a character in the American version of The Office. One thing that interested me about the final season was Jim’s newly found entrepreneurial spirit. One of Jim’s college friends starts up a sports marketing company using an idea they had come up with in college and offers Jim a chance to partner with him. Jim initially says no after talking to his wife, Pam, but after seeing that Pete, also known as “New Jim”, is heading down the same career path as Jim, he decides to take the opportunity without telling Pam.

Jim’s marketing company is called “Athlead”, which is as one Redditor described it, “Sports Marketing. ie. People like Jim are the guys who convince NASCAR that Pepsi should be the official cola of NASCAR,” while another described it as, “some kind of publicity firm for athletes.” According to The Office Wikia, “Athlead is a sports marketing company based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is run by Jim Halpert and several other employees.”

Jim Halpert's Marketing Company

When Darryl Philbin shows frustration with his job, Jim offers Darryl to join him in his potential opportunity, but Darryl tells him to tell Pam first, which he does. Pam seems to accept the idea of Jim taking the opportunity, but while Jim is excited, Pam is still upset he didn’t tell her immediately. Jim then impulsively agrees to put in $10K into the company, which angers Pam as that was more than what they agreed to put in and that Jim’s business partners claimed they were all set.

Getting Permission

Jim continues with his new business activities but finds that all of his business partners are in Philadelphia while he is still in Scranton. When the distractions Jim faces while talking over the phone prove too much, his friend says that him staying in Scranton isn’t working out for the business. He asks David Wallace if he can start working part time at Dunder Mifflin, handling any client problems from Philly. When David points out he might be needed in the office in some moments of crisis, Jim asks Stanley and Phyllis to cover for him, who agree, but not until after they take advantage of him. Jim takes Stanley and Phyllis on an expensive lunch. Stanley orders the most expensive items on the menu, and Phyllis proceeds to get drunk, prying a decorative wine bottle from a wooden partition, hoping it’s filled with wine. After the trio return from lunch, Phyllis laughingly tells him that of course, they’ll cover for him, “We love you guys.”.

Darryl’s Day Job

Jim is set to start his sports marketing job before Christmas and Darryl is under the impression that Jim forgot to offer him a position. When a drunken Darryl is ready to tell Jim off, Jim reveals that he talked to his friends about giving him a job. When Dwight Schrute learns that Darryl will be leaving Dunder-Mifflin to join Athlead, he tries to browbeat Darryl into staying by tallying up his perceived job failures since taking the Athlead job and holding a meeting on customer loyalty. While watching documentary footage of the event that has been uploaded onto the internet, Darryl laughs saying, “This is what I will miss when I move to Philadelphia.”

The Office Christmas Party

Before Jim leaves to start his sports marketing job in Philadelphia, he and Pam convince the office to allow Dwight to throw his version of a Christmas party so that Jim can poke fun at him. However, Jim leaves before the party is over, upsetting both Dwight and Pam. When Jim returns unexpectedly, Dwight gives him a hug, and they finish Dwight’s party with a tradition of breaking a pig rib.

Jim and Pam Incorporated

When Pam visits Athlead, Jim’s receptionist says, “We can’t wait for you and the kids to move to Philly,” and Pam looked surprised. From the moment Jim invested in Athlead, Pam’s attitude has been ‘This is taking Jim away from me’ instead of ‘this is making Jim happy in a new way.’ Obviously, they both need to be more honest about their futures, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Pam to come to the conclusions that Jim has never been happy with his job apart from Pam’s part in it. He’s happy with his new marketing job, and if it becomes something sustainable for him, his life is going to change.

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Neither Jim nor Pam were happy with their jobs in the first few seasons. Aside from his time with Pam and time spent making fun of Dwight, Jim had exactly one moment of genuine enjoyment of the job, and that was when he closed the sale at the golf course (which he did for Pam). Remember how Pam moved to New York for three months? Jim was nothing but supportive then and Jim was nothing but supportive when Pam quit to work for the Michael Scott Paper Company either. Jim is frustrated with the fact that Pam isn’t being as supportive, but here’s how she has been supportive:

  • While she was upset with Jim for not telling her about Athlead in the beginning, she still supported his decision to go.
  • She is raising two kids on her own while Jim is in Philadelphia, which Jim didn’t have to do when she did her two career experiments.
  • She has only complained to Jim one time about him not being there, and it was only after he was already lashing out at her.

Office Conclusions

I highlighted and include all of this because it’s interesting to see how the writers at The Office think about startups. It seems they’ve totally neglected things like product/market fit, lean methodologies, cost-benefit analysis, profit/loss statements, or business plans and simply focused on how one person’s decisions affect a group of people. There are two types of families in this show. There are the ones that exist at home and the ones that tie the office together. Both are equally important in this show’s eyes – much more than any business. And that seems to capture the essence of the show – that’s what Michael Scott always talked about. It wasn’t about selling paper. It was about loving people. That’s Dunder-Mifflin. Will that be Athlead too?