Interview with Problem Solver and Business Leader Nat Greene

Nat GreenNat Greene is a business leader, author, and problem-solving champion. He helps smart people make radically better decisions.

In 2001, aged 28, Nat co-founded Stroud International, a professional services firm that specialises in driving breakthrough improvement in operations and capital projects. As CEO, he has led its growth into a global business.

In 2016, he launched his latest project, Stop Guessing, aimed at developing a million great problem-solvers to solve the hardest and most pressing problems facing the world.

Nat’s belief in lifelong education has led him to receive a Masters degree from Oxford University in Engineering Science and a PGC from Cambridge in Design, Manufacturing & Management.

After moving to the United States, he attended the Harvard Business School Owner/President Management program and joined the Young Presidents’ Organization to improve his organizational leadership skills. Recently he joined Converge Venture Partners to further develop his entrepreneurial toolkit, and sits on the Board of Development at Christ Church, Oxford.

Nat’s international upbringing and global travel have armed him with diverse perspectives on challenges he faces, and a fearlessness of the unknown. He grew up in Hong Kong, where he attended school with classmates from over 40 different countries. He has lived, worked, and studied on 3 continents and travelled to more than 50 different countries and territories.

Hi Nat, thank you for stopping by Activia’s Expert Insights section. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself for our readers?

Growing up in Hong Kong, I'd walk around the city with my dad, who was a metallurgical engineer and professor at HK University. He'd show me metals all around the city and show me different ways they were corroding, and tell me both about the physical risks these could represent and how to prevent them. Hanging out with him definitely helped me to see problems like these all around me. I think a lot of things that people accept as unalterable reality are really just problems that can be solved and can make the world far better. As my career suggests, I'm a little bit obsessed about this point.

I get to work with incredibly talented people and help them solve problems other people call "impossible," so I consider myself very lucky. I spend much of my free time thinking about fixing politics and have a project called ReConsider which focuses on helping improve decision-making in democracy. I also row sculling boats, try to travel quite a lot, and have gotten into hiking very remote places and mountains.

I got to marry my college sweetheart and have 4 wonderful kids. Life's good.

You’re an entrepreneur, abundant thinker, politics junkie and problem-solver, which is one of the reasons why you decided to create Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers. Was there anyone or anything in particular that motivated you to write this book?

My big motivation here is just being fed up with seeing unsolved problems all around me. They're everywhere, and they cost everyone incredible amounts of time, money, and pain. There are innumerable problems in our personal lives, our businesses, and our communities that we can solve - if only we had better skills. Unfortunately we don't teach these skills to people, so all most people really know how to do is guess.

I run a consulting business where we help large companies solve very valuable hard problems, but this doesn't scale. So I wrote the book to hopefully help a whole lot of people understand the behaviours they need - and to inspire them - to adopt in order to go solve the problems in their lives and communities.


Stop Guessing Book CoverWho is this book aimed at and how will it help them?

I'm tempted to say "anyone" here. Of course it is primarily aimed at business leaders, as they have the resources and very clear payoff in solving hard problems in their businesses. They're already very motivated and they just need to learn how to change their behaviours.

But this book is also for anyone who wants to make their lives or the world a much better place. The behaviours are applicable to any problem you're facing, whether it's a broken machine or business process, or trying to change your own behaviour. I use a lot of examples from my own life - both where I've succeeded and struggled - to illustrate this.

Problem solving is a popular subject for self-help books – what is unique about Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers?

I read a whole lot of problem solving books as research for writing my own, because I needed to answer this very question. I found, to some amazement, that when they got down to business they all encouraged people to guess in some way. Whether it was forming "ideas" or "a hypothesis" or coming up with "likely causes," they all have a critical guessing step.

Some of this, I think, is because they're trying to teach a fairly simple and reliable method that people can use without stretching themselves too much. This can work to solve some simple problems but will fail to solve hard ones, where there may be many thousands of possible root causes. Trying to "hypothesize" the right one and then test it is just hopeless.

Instead of a rote step-by-step method that boils down to structured guessing, I wanted to write a book that would help people improve their actual skills. Great problem solvers may use many methods, but they don't rely on them. Great problem solving requires thinking and action on the part of the problem solver. The behaviours you take to the table will be the difference between victory and defeat. Critically: if you're going to stop guessing at the cause of or solution to a problem, you need new behaviours to take its place. That's what this book teaches.

Can you give some examples of famous people (alive or dead!) who were great problem solvers?

One of my favourites is Paul Polak, who wrote Out of Poverty - which I recommend. He took on solving extreme poverty in places like South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa - one of the most important problems we need to solve. He makes the case that countless billions have been thrown at the problem for decades and had no impact. This is bad problem solving. Polak himself formed an organization that has brought millions of people out of extreme poverty, all at a profit.
It seems incredible, but it's the result of great problem solving. He employs many of the behaviours I talk about in the book, and developed a more detailed and accurate understanding of the problem of poverty - by spending time with the poor people of these areas - than anyone had before. This allows him to come up with simple solutions for these people that empower them to bring themselves out of poverty.

Along a similar vein, Norman Borlaug set himself on the problem of famine - again in very poor nations. He led the development Genetically Modified Organics (GMOs) to massively increase crop yields and feed so many people that it is estimated he has saved over 1 billion lives. It was a very hard problem: these places cannot grow enough food to feed their people. He solved it with an incredibly simple solution through great problem solving.

Everyone faces problems in their life, so why do some people seem to resolve problems more easily than others?

Before writing Stop Guessing, I had never formalized the set of behaviours that I saw great problem solvers using. This meant that even in my business, we taught the behaviours informally, through coaching and experience. I developed the book by studying the behaviours of great problem solvers in my business and from inspiring greats like Polak.

Therefore, great problem solvers were using some or all of these behaviours effectively long before the book was written. When these folks walk into a room where wheels are spinning or people are panicking, they seem to have this magical ability to add structure and get people moving in the right direction.

The kinds of people who resolve problems easily are those who naturally adopt more of these problem solving behaviours. Nobody taught them these behaviours; they were just naturally smart or talented enough to adopt them spontaneously. Often these folks have trouble articulating what they're really doing differently. Hopefully Stop Guessing will help some of them teach others.

Almost everyone will read the book and recognize some behaviours they already use very effectively and some they will want to work on. Luckily, it's something everyone can get a lot better at if they choose to.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

If you want to become a much better problem solver, put the behaviours to work on some simpler problems and get practice. This will start to develop your belief that simple solutions exist for the problems in your life, and will increase your confidence as you take on the really hard ones.

Nat’s book, Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers, is available on Amazon. If you’d like to connect with him, you can find Nat on Twitter at @Greene_Nat