Startup Secrets Sandbox
Startup Secrets Sandbox
Personal Entrepreneurship

icon picker
Problem solving

Featuring Andy Jassy, CEO Amazon, formerly SVP, Amazon Web Services. With questions from Elon Musk.
Problem solving is an essential skill in entrepreneurship. It can be essential to both identifying problems worth solving, solving them and identifying opportunities for impactful change to avoid them in the future.
Furthermore, in my experience the greatest founders are often not just passionate about solving problems, they are also the most persistent.
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
— Albert Einstein
Let’s start with a story about Amazon to inspire you and then
As you review this resource, know that it is under review to both bring it up to date with new learnings form leaders like and with consideration for how AI will help us all evolve our problem solving.


Several years ago, Amazon was struggling with scaling its e-commerce infrastructure and realizing that many of its internal software projects took too long to implement, a major pain point from a competitive standpoint.
Andy Jassy, acting as a chief of staff for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, was assigned the task of figuring out why. What he realized was that what many of these teams were building wasn’t scaling beyond their own projects. For each new project, a team would have to reinvent the wheel.
Jassy and Amazon could have come up with a solution to this internal scaling problem and stopped there. But the team went beyond that, figuring that if they were having difficulty with certain technology infrastructure problems, it was highly likely that other companies were experiencing similar problems. Thus, if they could solve these issues for themselves, they could potentially also solve it for others.
So Amazon started to develop an architecture that could be re-employed over and over again by different engineering teams for different projects. These services allowed Amazon the retailer to move more quickly than it had previously.

Amazon Web Services, AWS and the rise of Cloud Computing

But the company didn’t stop there, choosing instead to turn its solution into a new business line, offering cloud computing as a service. And so Amazon Web Services was born. Today, AWS generates roughly $3 billion in annual revenue and adds more infrastructure daily than it took to run all of Amazon in 2003 when it was a $5.2 billion retail business with over 7,800 employees.
The lesson of course is that Amazon didn’t stop by solving its problem, but found a “breakthrough solution” that opened up new business opportunities (see video below).
Andy Jassy, senior vice president of Amazon Web Services, discuss the formation of AWS at Michael Skok’s Startup Secrets session at Harvard’s i Lab
So how can you develop these skills both for yourself and for your company?

Problem solving as a skill

Like many things, problem solving can be a learned skill. And it can be a team sport that I encourage you to think about from day one in your culture, in order to scale successfully.

8 Levels of Problem Solving and 8 Ways to Encourage Breakout Solutions…

What level problem solver can you be?

Simplified Problem Solving Framework:

Level 0 – Can’t see the problem (!)
Level 1 – See the problem and raise it
Level 2 – See the problem and define it clearly ​(a problem well defined is a problem half solved)
Level 3 – See the problem, define it clearly and identify the root cause
Level 4 – Plan ahead to avoid the problem or derivative problems re-occurring (prevention is better than a cure)
Level 5 – Find a practical and viable solution to the problem
Level 6 – Find a breakthrough solution to the problem ​(for example one that saves more than it costs, or opens the way to other breakthroughs)
Level 7 – Take initiative to implement the solution or develop the breakthrough
Level 8 – Look beyond problem prevention – create new opportunities from continuous improvement … (Think 3M, Amazon, )

How Can You Create A Great Problem-Solving Startup Culture ?

It’s not easy to create a culture that, like Amazon, sees opportunities instead of problems. But it helps to start with the simple motivational framework suggested above to focus people on assessing their own problem-solving abilities and then reward people as you see their problem-solving abilities progress.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Develop a culture that encourages vulnerability, and learning, not blame
Make heroes of those who constantly sniff for smoke and run to the fire.
Recognize and reward progress up these problem solving levels and, if possible, make recognition independent of titles, roles or traditional organizational constraints
Be patient with problem solvers who make mistakes and ask yourself – could you have done a better job setting the context, providing the support, resources or mentoring?
Consider rewarding bold, well-conceived attempts. Especially when people are trying to break through conventional constraints
Provide resources and opportunities for people to stretch their talents, shining a light on creative solutions

Even if you have to have only one person accountable for something, make it everyone’s responsibility to solve problems at EVERY level in the organization. Grass roots collaborative solutions are so often the best.
Usually people closest to the problem are best able to define it and when solved by those same people, they feel highly motivated to implement those solutions.
Solutions from on high are less motivating and often fail to provide the self-learning experience.
Some of the best solutions come from multi- disciplinary, multi-level, cross-functional problem solving.
Try even to engage your customers, partners and communities from outside the company. This co-creation often fosters trust and understanding. (Think open source and crowd sourcing)
Encourage self-awareness and motivate people to ask for help to develop their weaknesses and team around their strengths. Offer training and development for those who want to reach higher.
If you’re a manager, be authentic and don’t talk any of this. Just quietly walk the walk in a way that is authentic for you.
Taking this approach to problem solving will build both abundance and resilience on your team. I’ve found that the companies that attract, nourish and reward people with great problem-solving skills as a core competency get tremendous competitive advantage from it. Furthermore, businesses are often born from the successful identification and solution to problems in the market.
As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below. What you have found and how do you encourage breakthrough problem solving?
Read this next
Content from this column was originally published in and . It has since been updated.

Want to print your doc?
This is not the way.
Try clicking the ⋯ next to your doc name or using a keyboard shortcut (
) instead.