Problem solving is a “soft skill” valued by just about every employer. And its importance will only grow in the future—the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025 (and beyond), employers will increasingly seek out creative candidates with expertise in critical thinking and problem solving.
You’ve probably practiced problem solving skills without realizing it; most of us solve multiple problems, large and small, on a regular basis as we go about our lives. But workplace problems often require a more methodical, collaborative approach. Here’s how to sharpen your problem solving competencies for a current or potential job.
Identify and define the problem
The simplicity of the first step makes it easy to overlook. Before you can tackle a problem, though, you need a clear understanding of what the problem is. If you’re dealing with several issues at once, address them one at a time—you may find a lot of connected problems can be traced back to a single issue. Business coach Michael Cooper says, “A well-defined problem often contains its own solution within it,” and that might be the case for you.
The next step is to explain the problem as specifically as you can. Start by asking yourself “Why is this a problem?” even if the answer seems obvious. The “why” will open up other questions you can use to generate problem-solving ideas and make the issue easier for others to understand. Just because something seems like a clear problem to you doesn’t mean it’ll feel that way to someone else.
One definition of creativity is the ability to consider a task in a different way, or to think of new approaches and angles. Many organizations and individuals find themselves running into the same problems over and over. A well-timed creative solution can break the cycle.
One framework you can use is the Creative Problem Solving [CPS] process, formalized by theorists Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes (Osborn came up with the term “brainstorming”). There are many variations on the specific steps of this process, but they all involve a period of idea generation or thinking up “creative challenges.”
A creative challenge is a question designed to invite answers or suggestions. This can be as simple as replacing “I need to…” with “How can I…?” or “In what ways can I….?” Here’s what creative challenges might look like in a work context:
- How could I manage my time more efficiently to meet this deadline?
- How can I reorganize my inbox so I see the most important messages first?
- How could we use our internal communications software in a way that keeps messages from getting lost in the shuffle?
Pro tip: Turning problem statements into questions is a key problem-solving skill. Questions are much more open-ended than statements, which makes it easier for you and others to find multiple possible responses.
Generating potential solutions
Next you’ll think of answers to your “creative challenge” questions. This is the problem solving skill normally called brainstorming.
First, get all your ideas in one place—ideally a document you can refer to and edit later. For instance, an idea generation process might be helpful when you’re coming up with:
- Scenarios for a seminar that include in-person, virtual, and hybrid options
- Ways to cover necessary shifts in an understaffed workplace (staggering people’s schedules, reassigning or rearranging duties, bringing in volunteers, etc.)
- Presenting data for an annual report in a way that makes sense to readers (visual graphs, charts, a highlights reel, etc.)
Once you’ve thought of as many solutions as possible, step back from the list—as long as the problem isn’t too time-sensitive—and come back with fresh eyes.
The next step is to turn some of your ideas into actionable plans. When you see the solutions all together, you might discover how certain ideas are related and can form part of a connected strategy.
Not every idea is going to be a winner, so here are tips for sifting through them:
- Figure out in advance what criteria you’ll use to judge the ideas (like timeframe, budget restrictions, or other factors).
- Consider previous experiences you’ve had with a similar problem. What worked and what didn’t?
- Try the SWOT technique to think about all the angles of an idea.
- Break down broader, more vague solutions into step-by-step tasks.
Collaborating as a team
At any point during this process, you may realize you don’t have the best skill set or expertise to solve the problem. Or you might simply want to bring in different perspectives.
- Remember, creativity involves trying new approaches. Someone else may propose an idea that would never have occurred to you.
- Solutions will impact some employees differently than others, depending on their roles. On your own, you may not realize how your potential solutions affect other people.
- Suspend judgment any time you’re generating creative challenges or ideas, in a group or on your own. This might not be easy, especially if you flat-out disagree with a colleague’s idea, but listen to their reasoning first. Everyone needs a chance to be heard.
Ultimately the solution should be a group effort, even if one person is in charge of the process. Collaboration has the bonus effect of keeping everyone on the same page. When everyone understands the task, the details, and the logistics, there’s less confusion.
Making a decision and moving forward
Once you’ve generated, narrowed down, and developed ideas, you’re ready to pick the solution you think will be most effective.
After you implement your plan, you’ll practice another crucial problem-solving skill, evaluation. Come up with benchmark criteria to determine whether or not the solution is working.
For instance, maybe you’ve arranged a way for staff members to take on new responsibilities after a colleague has left abruptly or a position is eliminated. Your evaluation benchmarks will probably include performance metrics to make sure the work is complete and up to organizational standards. You’ll also want to assess whether the staff members feel they can sustain their new workloads and whether tasks are being distributed fairly.
And once solutions get underway, they may not work out exactly as you thought they would. While that’s inconvenient, it doesn’t mean the problem-solving process failed.
Problem solving is an ongoing effort, and if you do end up going back to the idea generation board, you’ll learn even more the next time.
What problem solving tips and techniques have you found helpful? Feel free to comment and share.
Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.