In the recent RMIT Online jobs report, critical thinking and problem solving ranked highly in terms of in-demand skills, although a lot of survey respondents (about 32 per cent) thought you could only learn these things ‘on the job’. That isn’t really the case anymore. Critical thinking and problem solving can be taught, they can be learned, and they’re becoming incredibly valuable in a volatile, digital workforce.
For proof, you don’t need to look far beyond some recent, high-profile case studies. The companies that successfully navigated the pandemic, and emerged stronger on the other side, were the ones who pivoted quickly and overcame obstacles on the fly. We’re going to look at three of these companies today – Slack, Zoom and HubSpot – to see what we can learn about the value of problem solving.
Somehow these companies turned problems into thriving, highly successful business models. And if you’re going to survive in a future of automation, AI and tech disruption, you’ll need to learn to do the same.
Slack actually didn’t start as an all-purpose corporate collaboration tool. When the company launched in 2013, co-founders Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson originally pitched it at game developers. They realised there wasn’t an internal tool that fitted their needs, so they created one. In the first 24 hours after launch, Slack had 8000 companies signed up. Butterfield and Henderson quickly realised they were onto something, and pivoted their gaming company, Tiny Speck, renaming it Slack Technologies. By 2014, Slack had become the fastest company in history to reach a billion dollar valuation.
Slack saw a problem – the inefficiency of overlapping emails, texts, phone calls and messages scrawled on little bits of paper – and overcame it with a slick, social interface. To scale quickly across all platforms, they moved to holistic development tools, like Electron (this actually called for a complete, head-to-toe application re-write at the time). And as the user base grew, new problems arose – competition, scaling, data maintenance, caching etc. Each was overcome in turn.
Slack is a great example of a company that found a problem, fixed it, and then went on fixing it. Improving their product over time.
In the 1990s, Chinese college student Eric Yuan had a problem. His girlfriend lived 10 hours away, by train.
On those endless train rides, Eric started to daydream about a piece of technology that would let them chat ‘face to face’ in real time. Those daydreams eventually formed the basis of a little company called Zoom, which launched in 2012. As a VP of tech giant Cisco, Eric already had a lot of contacts in the collaboration space, and he brought 40 fellow engineers with him to start Zoom. Within five years, their customer base included one third of the Fortune 500 list.
You might think the pandemic is the reason for Zoom’s success (and it’s true, revenue increased by 169 per cent in the first quarter affected by COVID, and 355 per cent in the one after that), but the company was already hugely popular. The secret? Yuan’s ability to spot problems, and solve them. Collaboration and video tools already existed before Zoom, but in the early days of his company, Yuan was determined to learn from their mistakes. He began by personally emailing every single customer who cancelled a Zoom subscription, asking them how to improve. “One customer replied to my note and accused me of impersonating the CEO!” he once told Medium.
HubSpot has gone down in history as the company that more-or-less invented ‘inbound marketing’. Launched in 2005 by MIT graduates and friends Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot realised that traditional advertising had a problem: customers had become incredibly good at tuning out TV ads, and the internet was opening up an entirely new realm of possibility. SMEs no longer needed to spend all their time and resources cold-calling people. Through social media, website optimisation and customer engagement, you could actually get users to market for you. People could now find your company through Google, social and blogs, so you’d never need to go door-to-door again.
It was a game-changing idea, and by the end of 2010, the company’s revenue had grown to $15.6 million (up from $255,000 just three years earlier).
HubSpot identified a problem – consumer habits were changing, and traditional marketing wasn’t keeping up – and instead of throwing up their hands, they sat down and devised a solution. HubSpot has embraced other problems over the years – they were quick on AI, acquiring machine learning company Kemvi in 2017 – and have stayed pre-eminent through a mix of adaption, adoption and willingness to change.
Interested in developing the right skills to drive strategy and problem solve real business problems? Check out our Strategic Problem Solving course here.
Created with industry partner Monitor Delloite. Monitor Deloitte is the multinational strategy consulting practice of Deloitte Consulting. Monitor Deloitte specializses in providing strategy consultation services to the senior management of major organisations and governments.