As I talk to business owners about navigating growth, I’ve heard a common theme:

I know I need to do something, but there’s so much to do and I don’t know where to start. I sit down for strategic work time and then promptly get overwhelmed and distract myself.

My distraction is laundry and checking my business social pages. When I’m not clear on what I need to do or don’t have the mental sharpness to focus – I inevitably end up on LinkedIn or swearing my clothes must be cleaned — immediately.

Growth tests that even more. When you’re pursuing smart growth, your job can be even harder simply because you’re encountering more things you don’t know. The knowledge that got you to where you are is only part of the puzzle. So why is it so difficult to find the missing puzzle pieces?

Our Love of the Known

Our brain is one of the best pattern-recognition technologies out there. It is excellent at extracting what looks familiar and categorizing it. Unfortunately, when we encounter what we don’t know, it can struggle to get the category right.

If what we’re encountering looks familiar enough, it can categorize it incorrectly resulting in assumptions that aren’t true or missed opportunities.

If too much of the picture is unfamiliar, our fight or flight reflex can get activated resulting in overwhelm. It’s our brain’s way of saying “Danger Will Robinson!”

Lessons from School

Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

My daughter is a brilliant mathematician. She certainly did not get the gene from her mother 🙂 She also hates getting things wrong. Because she’s naturally gifted at math, she’s always been accelerated. Which means: her math is hard and I am very little help to her.

If we take new problems as a whole, we struggle to match the pattern. It doesn’t look familiar. There’s just too much we don’t know.

Not knowing can also create strong negative emotions like frustration and fear, both of which can limit access to our problem-solving resources. And those are exactly the resources we need in a situation like this.

It was no different for my daughter. If she didn’t know the problem, she would often shut down (avoid it), break down, or just keep saying I don’t know.

One day when she’d given up on a problem, I asked her what she didn’t understand. Even in her frustration she was able to articulate she knew one part but not the other – which was a breakthrough at the time. Then the answer hit me.

“I just don’t know!” She said with tears in her eyes.

There was a pause, and I looked at her,

“So what do you know?”

She looked at me with crossed eyes like I was an alien from outer space.

“I told you. I just don’t know.”

“But you said you knew something, a part of the problem. Do you know how to do that part?

She re-looked at her paper and me. Still stumped. Mom clearly did not get it. I tried again. I asked her to point to the part of the problem she knew then covered up the rest.

“Can you solve this part of the problem? Then we can break the rest down and figure out what to do with it.”

Over the next few minutes she was able to solve enough of the problem until she got it down to the last part. I can’t remember if teacher intervention was required for that part or not; but what I do know is that it was a game changer. That night we coined a new catch phrase we repeat every time she gets stuck on a problem and shuts down.

Solve for what you know, then figure out what you don’t.

You’re More Creative Than You May Realize

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Human beings are highly creative problem-solvers. The challenge is that we are trying to crack the problem as one problem vs. problem parts. If you solve for what you know, what’s left is often more specific and our brain might be able to find a pattern it recognizes, think of new solutions or deconstruct a path forward from what it does know.

This same concept can apply from math to business. One of my early jobs was to restore profitability for a large, unhappy customer account that was losing money for my company.

To get to a solution I would ask these questions.

What do we know?

I knew what we charged customers for each part of the solution. I knew how many locations we had installed to and when we planned to install the rest. I knew what the technology cost us.

What can we know that we need to know?

I didn’t know exactly what type of solution each store was classified for, which would drive profit margins and performance for the customer. But we could accelerate a bit of prep work and figure it out.

What don’t we know that could bite us?

The key phrase is “that could bite us”. Don’t think of everything that could go wrong, but only the biggest things that are more likely to go wrong.

One question we had to grapple with was could we install all the stores in the time allotted? If not, our fixed overhead costs for people like me would go up and our profitability would be delayed or thwarted. As a result, we knew installs per month would be a key metric for us to monitor and manage. We also took the time to figure out what delay would be too much and would make the loss on the contract irreversible. That would be the point we would need to face tougher decisions. That’s when you as a business owner might start talking about exiting as gracefully as possible.

By asking these questions we were able to come up with a plan that came to fruition – getting the account back to earning money and the customer back to happy. We knew our downsides and we protected against them. We focused on making decisions that would delight our clients and keep us whole.

Here’s a few added bonuses. When we focus on what we know and can work towards, we are more motivated. We activate the portion of our brains that allow us to create, problem solve and motivate us vs. the parts that shut us down.

When we focus on what we know, we also strengthen those networks that look to find solutions. That means we can activate that network more easily in the face of overwhelm. Eventually it becomes habit and we do it instinctively. A colleague of mine recently posted this quick video from Rick Tamlyn, an excellent coach trainer I studied under, on a similar topic about the impacts of focusing on what’s working well vs. what’s not working.

So What Do You Know?

Are you trying to do your first 3-5 year plan and having heart palpitations and you’re frozen? If you’ve already tried some of the techniques I outlined here to get past the impasse, there’s probably a little more unknown than your brain is comfortable with. So here’s the secret.

Solve for what you know.

So what do you know? You probably know everything you need to lay out what you want to happen this year and how to manage it. You just might not realize it.

Here are some things business owners often know:

  • Products you sell, amount you sold, and who you sold it too
  • What you’d like your company to pay you and what it actually paid you
  • What’s in your pipeline or expected volumes
  • What you expect to spend each month on overhead expenses and on each unit you sell
  • I know what’s in your bank and what will be in your bank if my pipeline and spending are correct

If you make a solid plan for this year you can manage and monitor against; it’ll become wildly easier to build a 3-5 year plan you can manage and monitor again. It’s the same concept, you’re just doing it at a higher level. Here’s what doing year one will get you:

  • You can take the same one-year model and stretch it out to 3 years.
  • You’ll know where you’re leaking business and have possible exit opportunities
  • You’ll know what parts of your business are the strongest and where you should invest

You solved for what you know.

You Know More than You Think

Now let’s talk about an example of something you don’t think you know.

I’m not sure what new services I should add

Here’s what you do know:

  • The challenges your customers have and what they are asking you for

Here’s what you can know:

  • Possible solutions for their problems that line up with what you’re good at and your vision
  • What you can sell those for
  • What it would cost to build them

These are more complicated questions, but they are still answerable.

You know a lot more than you realize.

Back to the Future

Next time you open up a blank page to try to build a future that doesn’t exist and your heart starts pounding and the blank screen reminds you of a scene from a horror film, remember this.

Solve for what you know. THEN figure out what you don’t.

Need help? We’ll unpack what you know, then fill in the gaps in an outline of your first one-year plan (on us). Schedule today


Jenny Erickson grows micro-businesses by getting them from where they are to where they want to be through advice, coaching, and fractional-COO support. Which business are you?

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