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ATB Entrepreneur & Small BusinessMar 22, 2024 9:10:51 AM6 min read

Fresh perspectives: New solutions for problem solving in your business

Are you hitting roadblocks when it comes to finding solutions for your business?

Even if you’re in an unconventional industry and think your struggles are unique, many small business owners find they face similar challenges. Often, the solution is closer than anticipated, and you might just need a fresh approach.

ATB Financial and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) recently teamed up for a workshop to present four problem-solving strategies to small business owners. Participants came prepared with a challenge their business is facing and applied the strategies to brainstorm innovative solutions with fellow entrepreneurs of different backgrounds.

If you could take away the rules, norms and expectations hampering you, what solutions could you come up with? How can you use your network to be open about challenges, see things from a different angle and put creative thinking into action?


Participants brainstorm at ATB Financial and the Business Development Bank of Canada's problem-solving workshop in Edmonton on Feb. 29, 2024. (Kaylen Small/ATB Financial)

Strategies for creative problem solving

Tactic #1: In the box?

You see things through your own lens all the time. This strategy is about shifting away from that trap of self-deception to consider other outlooks (and the best possible solution). What are other people’s perspectives? How you feel about someone depends on whether you’re viewing them from in or out of your box.

Consider boarding a plane. You want a window seat but are assigned the aisle.

In the box view: A couple carrying their crying toddler boards. The dad and child sit next to you. You view them as a nuisance, as though your needs are more important than theirs.

Out of the box view: You notice the mom has a window seat and offer to switch with her so the family can sit together and you’re not stuck next to a toddler. You can see the opportunity through the family’s eyes—they’re people with needs just like you—and capitalize on it to get what you want.

Tactic #2: Forced limitation
  • What it is: How would you approach the problem if you had to ignore a core part of your business?
  • Concept source: The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward De Bono

What core parts of your business are affected by your challenge? Categories include but aren't limited to sales/marketing, operations, logistics, personnel, leadership and company culture. How would you approach the situation if you had to ignore one core part of your business? What happens when you bring that element back into consideration?

Imagine yourself preparing for a boxing match. What if you weren’t allowed to strike with your left hand? Because your range of motion has changed, you’d have to analyze what strengths of yours remain, adapt your footwork and amp up blocking to avoid taking unnecessary hits. It forces you to find new ways to land punches with your right hand, use your feet and move your body without relying on your left hand to set it up.

Tactic #3: The edge
  • What it is: Balancing expectations with the unspoken.
  • Concept source: “We can do this!” by Kate Sutherland

The edge is about recognizing what we do automatically or because society expects it, identifying hidden aspects, and finding a balance between necessary actions and improving or eliminating behaviours.

For example, consider a volunteer board for a diverse childhood learning program that wants to recruit members but is staffed with white men who aren’t parents. Using a picture of the current board in an ad could deter people of diverse backgrounds from applying to your board or using your services. The edge means leaning into it and using that picture of the homogenous board. What if you called out your own lack of diversity—“What’s missing in this picture? We need you!”—to attract a wider range of talent? It might be taboo to point out because race is a sensitive topic, but because the board acknowledges the issue, the initiative will hopefully communicate a desire to be more inclusive.

Tactic #4: Change the rules
  • What it is: How would you approach the situation if you could remove a rule?
  • Concept source: The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward De Bono

This strategy is illustrated by the many versions of the pebble story and is about changing the rules when you’re in a tough situation. What rules exist around your challenge? How could you approach the problem if you got rid of one?

This thought experiment promotes creative thinking. If the rules are laws or regulations, then they must be brought back into play when finalizing the solution. If they are just industry norms or common expectations, then they might not need to be reintroduced.

For example, your gym may offer free or discounted memberships to attract new customers. This could be considered an industry norm because customers expect it—it’s difficult to market a gym without offering deals—but what if no one expected discounts? What would a marketing strategy for the gym look like? Maybe you could differentiate your gym on more than just price by hosting educational fitness events or partnering with a local influencer. The point is to be more creative than giving away memberships. Eventually, you’d bring the rule back into consideration, but brainstorming without it could spark new ideas.

20240229 ATBEC problem solving workshop 2

Participants listen to ATB Financial and the Business Development Bank of Canada's problem-solving presentation in Edmonton on Feb. 29, 2024. (Kaylen Small/ATB Financial)


Listening in and practising

In each 30-minute breakout session, one participant would share their problem with the table and their peers collaborated with them to come up with solutions. 

Our team listened in on a session:

The challenge

The owner of a personal services business said it’s difficult to find the right audience. One-off clients are great, but that’s not the goal—monthly clients are. Entrepreneur #1 is finding it challenging to educate, attract and retain regular customers.

The opportunities

The tactics this group used were “changing the rules” and “forced limitation” to focus on marketing to reach new clients.

Entrepreneur #2 asked: what can your contractor do in an hour? Are they going to take an hour to do my dishes? In ads, Entrepreneur #1 could say, “We can get more done in an hour than you can.” Entrepreneur #2 recommended having a price structure because everyone’s affordability is different.

Entrepreneur #3 helped explore why Entrepreneur #1 can’t find the right target audience, explaining that Albertans are DIYers and asking: what are you doing with current clients? Entrepreneur #1 explained that customers won’t refer business to her because they want her company to be their best kept secret. The solution could be about removing the assumption that women—the target demographic—can do it all. It’s about tackling the stigma of hiring help and telling clients they can approach life differently. The group said to use social media to point out the “best kept secret” and ask potential clients, “What would you rather be doing?”

Entrepreneur #4 suggested giving incentives to become a regular client or creating a loyalty program to make it more personalized. Entrepreneur #1 has done personalized services before but has not promoted it. A messaging idea? Her company can avoid peak hours to run errands when customers can’t.

Common challenges

Overall, challenges that entrepreneurs explored at the workshop included:

  • how to generate profit
  • finding a unique value proposition to set a small company apart from competition
  • how to better penetrate the market
  • developing a go-to market strategy
  • growing the client base
  • how to get small business owners to want to talk about their money

Putting it all together

The workshop’s purpose was to create a safe, supportive space for entrepreneurs to discuss problems and solutions. Despite individual differences, small business owners can find solidarity and inspiration in confronting common challenges together. Each entrepreneur has a unique background and variety of ideas, so you never know what perspective will resonate and help in overcoming your business’ hurdles.