Bill Gates has done a few things in his life. I mean, there's Microsoft, one of the most valuable companies on earth, which Gates co-founded and led until 2008. There's also the Gates Foundation, which has tackled some of the world's largest public health problems, like eradicating polio from its last few strongholds, for one. Of course, there's also the work the foundation is doing to fund Covid-19 vaccines, as well as work to increase access to rapid testing.
For someone who could easily sit back and enjoy the latter part of his life spending more money than most us could ever fathom, Gates has definitely taken a more proactive approach to provide solutions that benefit society. As a result, it's fascinating to hear from Gates himself how he approaches big problems.
In a recent blog post, Gates explained just that:
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?
Those are actually pretty simple questions, but they are far from obvious when you think about it. Most of us, when faced with a problem, immediately dive into coming up with a solution. What Gates suggests is different. It might seem subtle at first, but really it represents an important shift in how you approach challenges.
When facing a problem, Gates says his first inclination isn't to come up with a solution, it's to learn more about what others are already doing. Gates's default response is to be a learner.
That's not only brilliant, it's also quite rare. It might even seem counterintuitive to start not by coming up with a plan, but instead by figuring out who else is already tackling the problem and seeking to learn from their work.
This is exactly why we watch videos on YouTube on how to fix our vacuum or dishwasher. Someone else has been through this, and they're willing to share that information. Your job is to swallow your pride and recognize that the best thing you can do to solve the problem is to be willing to learn.
In reality, it breaks down into three important leadership traits: First, know what you don't know. Then, know where to find information. And finally, be willing to learn.
It takes an extraordinary degree of humility and self-awareness to recognize you might not have all the answers, to be OK with that reality, and then have the discernment to know where to look. Chances are, no matter what you're trying to accomplish, you probably aren't the first to go down that path. It's likely someone has faced this problem, and whether they've managed to solve it or not, there's probably something you can learn and incorporate into whatever solution you're working on.
The thing is, that doesn't come easy for many leaders. It isn't always obvious to look elsewhere for information. Leaders are often looked to as having all of the answers, and they often feel that pressure to point their team in the direction of providing solutions.
Of course, if it works for Bill Gates, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say it's probably a pretty good strategy for the rest of us. The next time you're facing a challenge in your business, ask yourself who has already been through this. Then, see what you can learn from their experience. That way, instead of starting from zero, you'll have the benefit of knowing what has already been tried, what has worked, and what has failed.
At a time when information is so widely accessible, there's a pretty good chance that the person you're looking for has a blog, or is on social media, or has written a book. They might even have a YouTube channel. All you have to do is look.