How Bill Gates Approaches Problem Solving: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Having the right answers is important, but success can also be achieved by asking the right questions.

Take Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, who regularly asked himself one question: “Will this (decision) make Southwest Airlines the low-cost provider?” Or Steve Jobs, who regularly asked one question: “How many times did you say no today?”

Add Bill Gates to the list. According to the most recent post on his GatesNotes blog:

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve tackled every big new problem the same way: by starting off with two questions. I used this technique at Microsoft, and I still use it today. I ask these questions literally every week about Covid-19.

Here they are: Who has dealt with this problem well? And what can we learn from them?

We all tend to work and live within self-created boundaries. We do the kinds of things we normally do. We read the kinds of books we normally read. We interact with the kind of people we normally interact with. In the process, we learn a little more about the things we already know. That feels like progress.

But what if you step outside your self-created boundaries? What if you decide to go where you normally don’t go, and do what you normally don’t do?

That, in a nutshell, is the Gates approach. If you want to solve a huge problem or achieve a huge goal, don’t waste time trying to reinvent the wheel.

Find a great wheel you can adopt for yourself

When I worked in book manufacturing, I was part of a group that toured a nearby Coors bottling plant. We came away with more productivity improvement ideas than we could implement in a year.

The facility was impressive, but it’s not like Coors was doing incredible things. They were just doing different — to us — things.

We knew what we knew. But we didn’t know what they knew, and that we could apply those things to make ourselves even better.

I’ve had countless similar experiences. I went riding with pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop and discovered more about cycling in 30 minutes than I had learned in the previous year. I worked out with FitnessGenes co-founder and CEO Dr. Dan Reardon and discovered more about lifting in that hour than I had learned over years of trying to gain strength and size. Talking with Navy SEAL Ray Care totally changed how I think about perseverance and determination, even though after doing 100,000 push-ups, I thought I already knew a lot about how to stay the course.

The same has happened to you. You’ve met people who totally changed your perspective. You’ve read books that made you think differently about your life, whether professionally or personally. You’ve gone places, and done things you normally wouldn’t do, that made you a smarter and better person.

Yet we don’t actively seek out those experiences.

Take a page from the Gates playbook. Instead of trying to brainstorm your way to a new solution to a problem or a new process to achieve a goal, ask yourself two questions:

“Who has dealt with this problem well? And what can I learn from them?”

The best way to solve a problem or achieve a goal is to find people who have actually solved that problem or achieved that goal. Start from the end, the solution or achievement, and then work backward. 

That approach is the great equalizer, because you won’t need to be unusually creative. Or unusually smart. Or unusually connected, or educated, or wealthy.

You just need to be willing to look, and study, and then folllow the steps and process you discover.

Best of all, you’ll follow that process knowing — instead of hoping — that your hard work will pay off.

Because what works for others can definitely work for you.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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