Problem-solving skills

Finding innovative solutions to issues or challenges faced by your team are at the heart of excellent problem-solving. These solutions are often required for tight deadlines or when only limited resources are available – hence why problem-solving is a skill that can separate the good leaders from the great leaders.

Developing problem-solving strategies takes persistence and dedication, but it can be achieved by employees working across all roles and industries. 

Steps to getting the problem solved

There’s no shortage of problems you’ll face in the workplace that require solving. You might work in finance and need to creatively educate clients on phishing scams to reduce losses. Or maybe you’re a CEO who needs to modify the organisation’s strategy to counter an unexpected market disruptor. Whether small, large, predictable or truly challenging, most of the problems you face can be addressed by employing the below steps:

  • Define the problem
    Articulating the problem you need to solve isn’t just about knowing it exists and working to that knowledge. Write down the extent of the problem and work out who it affects, how far reaching it is, if it’s occurred before, what the consequences are and any existing data or information relevant to the issue.
  • Don’t settle for the first, most obvious solutions
    Because problem-solving strategies often need to be found and implemented quickly, it can be tempting to use the first solution that comes to mind. But is it the most innovative? And does it have the ability to solve the problem permanently? You don’t have to ignore or reject the first strategy that comes to mind, but be willing to park it until you’ve completed your problem-solving steps and have considered the alternatives.
  • Consider all stakeholder interests
    Knowing the stakeholders affected by the problem you’re working hard to solve is an important step that should never be overlooked. For example, if a project management tool crashes, you’ll quickly realise that the teams reliant on this tool are affected. But did you consider external stakeholders, service providers and remote workers? What about past projects that need to be reported on? Create a list of all affected people and parties, even if they’re only marginally affected.
  • Efficient testing and learning
    Be prepared to test the best problem-solving strategies efficiently and learn from what is applied. Document the process from beginning to end to understand what works, what doesn’t, and the point at which solutions failed to solve the problem. Having comprehensive documentation will be beneficial when you do find the right solution, and will serve as a valuable guide for colleagues and teams who may later face the same challenges.
  • Engage the best people 
    When you’ve found the best problem-solving strategy for the task at hand, know how to engage the best people and resources to resolve the problem. The best skills may come from an internal department, from external contractors or freelancers or from a combination of both. Knowing how and when to engage the best people is a key problem-solving skill.

Develop your problem-solving skills

In addition to following a series of logical steps to get your problem solved, you’ll find you can improve your problem-solving skills by using particular resources and developing several other complementary skills. When committing to becoming a better problem solver, consider the below:

  • Mine data
    Knowing how to read, interpret and use available data will be a valuable tool in solving the problems you face in your career. Data often presents the factual information or statistics required for developing a solution, so always exploit it if available. Understanding how to mine data also involves knowing how to translate and share it with colleagues and stakeholders, who, once understanding it, may contribute to a fast and effective solution.
  • Constructive debate
    Arguing for and against a particular problem-solving strategy is a useful way of determining the pros and cons of each, and deciding which solution you’ll implement first. Debating options also requires you to research and develop levelled arguments for each strategy, a valuable technique in selecting the best solution and optimising as you go.
  • Identify problems before they occur
    Someone with brilliant problem-solving skills (and very likely the respected leaders you admire) will have, over time, developed the ability to identify problems before they occur. While this doesn’t mean they can always be avoided, it does allow more time to establish and implement the best problem-solving strategy. This special skill also relies on extraordinary knowledge of an organisation, its values and processes, the industry it exists within and broader market trends.
  • Learning from mistakes
    In all areas of your professional life there is the potential to make mistakes, having tried something that, despite your effort and consideration, fails to achieve the desired outcome. Making mistakes to develop your problem-solving ability is no different, and they remain an important way of learning how to improve process and practice.
  • Great communication skills
    Most great problem solvers are likely to have excellent communication skills. These skills enable to you effectively detail what the problem is, engage the right and most valuable people, and keep them connected to the task at hand from start to finish. So if you’re looking to develop your problem-solving strategies, we highly recommend working on your communication skills as well.

Improving your problem-solving skills will enable you to see problems as opportunities to improve systems and relationships, not occurrences to fear or panic over.

The more your skills and strategies are developed and practised, the more you’ll have to draw from when you’re faced with bigger and more challenging problems in your professional life.