How to improve your problem solving skills | Main Region

How to improve problem solving skills

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Regardless of your job and industry, there are certain soft skills that are universally valued by employers. Problem solving is one of them, yet the ability to solve problems is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. In fact, problem solving can be a very difficult skill to master.

As the world of work becomes more complex and fast-moving, the ability to find the cause of complex problems then solve them will become increasingly vital. So, if you need to enhance your problem solving skills in response to this growing demand, we share a few practical methods for improving your problem solving techniques below.

What are problem solving skills?

Firstly, what are we referring to when we talk about ‘problem solving’ skills? These are skills that allow you to identify and understand the causes of an issue, and then formulate solutions in response. This can involve solving problems that impact the entire company, such as falling customer retention rates, or challenges that impact just you, such as insufficient training.

While the problems you can encounter at work are endless, you can solve complex pain areas for you and your company by utilising an intelligent and efficient problem solving process.

5 ways to improve your problem solving skills

Here are five tips to help develop your problem solving skills and become an efficient problem solver. Hopefully, they’ll also help you look at problem solving from a different, solutions focused perspective.

1. Identity and understand the right problem

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein
It sounds simple, but many problems remain unsolved because there has not been a focused effort to really understand and identify the problem itself. For instance, think back to when you were in school. If you asked a teacher for help with a particular question you were struggling to answer, did they provide you with a solution straight away? Probably not. Instead, they likely firstly went over the question with you and talked about what it’s really asking you to ensure you are attempting to solve the right problem.

You can follow the same principle to develop your problem solving skills in the workplace. In other words, good problem solving requires you to firstly understand the real problem you need to solve before you attempt to come up with any solutions. Often, the minute you identify the correct intent of the problem, a solution more easily follows.

2. Research the systems and practices behind the problem

When faced with a problem at work, ask relevant stakeholders to talk you through the fundamentals of the relevant issues so you understand how the situation or process currently works. Don’t think you know everything and should therefore come up with an immediate solution. Instead, consult with relevant people to really appreciate the nuances of the problem area and the causes of it. After all, to effectively solve problems you need to understand the significant points of the process or situation before you can work on a solution.

For example, think of a simple scenario, such as a bucket that gets filled with water and then starts to overflow. Your first thought might be to get a bigger bucket. But this will only suppress the symptoms rather than identify the root cause. In this illustration, a bigger bucket won’t fix the underlying real problem as it, too, will eventually overflow. Remember, problem solving is not a band-aid solution.

3. Visualise the problem

While this may not be relevant for all situations, pictorial representations can help to solve problems. So, as part of your problem solving process, draw a simple diagram of the process or situation you need to fix to help visualise all the complexities. Any tool, from PowerPoint to a whiteboard or a piece of paper can help you understand a problem if it is becoming overwhelming or is multifaceted. In addition, drawing the existing situation can bring about clarity of thinking because it allows you to highlight and define the problem area, thereby helping you tackle it more easily and quickly.

“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” Steve Jobs

4. Brainstorm creative solutions

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
Building a simple solution does not mean trivialising or rushing through the problem that you are looking to solve. Once you understand the problem and fundamentals behind it, baseline your thoughts so you can recap and approach the problem with fresh eyes.

Then, brainstorm possible alternative solutions. Good problem solvers draw on their critical thinking skills and understand that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ solutions at this point. The key to problem solving is to focus on simple, creative solutions – but being able to come up with a creative answer is unrelated to your creative ability. Rather, it’s about your ability to think about a problem and potential solution from a different perspective.

So, when looking to solve problems, don’t focus on how your company has traditionally approached the issue or on how the problem came into existence. Remember, problem solving requires new thinking and new solutions.

5. Identify the best answer

Once you have a list of potential solutions, review them to narrow down your options. If you have a long list, group common ideas together. To aid your decision making, think through each of the solutions in the context of your organisation’s objectives, budget and timeframe, as well as the likely overall success outcomes. Also consider any potential risks associated with these solutions.

Presenting your final ideas to relevant team members and stakeholders, and gathering their feedback, will also help you make the best possible choice.

Problem solving skills: Next steps

Once a solution to a problem has been identified, the work doesn’t end. As a problem solver, it's important to develop and implement an action plan, monitor progress and, if necessary, make any necessary adjustments to ensure the problem is completely resolved.

Like any skill, problem solving skills take practice. You don't become a problem solver overnight. But with no shortage of problems to be faced, these tips will help you grow your problem solving skills so you can address every problem that comes your way, whether it's in the workplace or life, with the best solution possible. What’s more, you’ll become known as a problem solver – which will have valuable lifelong career benefits.

Problem solving methods FAQ

What are the 5 steps of effective problem solving strategies

The five steps to effective problem solving are:
  1. Identify and understand the problem.
  2. Research the systems and practices behind the problem.
  3. Visualise the problem.
  4. Brainstorm multiple solutions.
  5. Identify the most suitable solution.

How do you develop a problem-solving mindset?

In short, practice and patience. The more problems you solve, the better you get at it. You may get some wrong, but that's okay. Use the five steps, taking your time on each one to evaluate your decisions and ask for support from other team members when it's needed. After a couple of projects, you will have developed better problem solving muscles.

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