Learn how to be better at problem-solving
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It’s one of the most coveted skills for the future yet is sorely lacking in almost all aspects of society.
Whatever the concern – social, economic, environmental, commercial, charitable or personal to name just a few - the overwhelming need remains the same: good problem-solving.
There are vast differences, of course, between the talents needed to fix any issue.
At work, for example, fixing a dodgy printer is less tricky than hiring an effective employee.
In turn, this isn’t as much of a challenge as drumming up new business in a slump or staving off collapse in a crisis.
Yet it’s not just during times of crisis where problem-solving proves its worth.
A great deal of success can be attributed to early identification of potential setbacks – and taking the right steps to prevent them.
Almost all business roles will throw up tricky challenges at least once in a while. In some, there can be several each day. That means effective problem solvers can be a considerable asset for any workplace, yet research suggests they are also in short supply.
So what can be done?
In any discipline – not just your work - applying a set of established techniques to tackle challenges might sound woolly, particularly if you know your problem poses a unique solution.
However, there are some common ways of thinking that can help in a wide range of scenarios.
No one set of measures will suit everyone but each of the six steps below could help you to see problems in a new light - and reveal previously hidden solutions.
1 Get as clear a picture as you can of the exact problem
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
This renowned quote from Albert Einstein gets to the heart of overcoming any setback.
Having a tightly defined idea of the issue you are trying to solve is the first step towards finding a solution.
In many cases, you may know you have a problem but aren’t yet sure of its specific cause. Framing the problem as a process to unpick can help you to work out where the issue lies. For example, imagine the company you’re working at runs into trouble with a series of misplaced deliveries. To solve the problem, don’t just focus on the deliveries. Identify every stage the delivery must go through, from the order being made through to its invoice, logistics, third parties, transport and goods being physically received.
Work through them chronologically to determine where errors are creeping in – and, for extra insight, it could be worth looking at the process in reverse too.
This can help you to get as much clarity as possible and glean a much sharper understanding of where your actual problem may lie.
2 Break it down into parts - and then prioritise
Many big problems can be broken down into a number of smaller tasks that you can take on separately.
If this is possible, work out what needs your attention straight away and decide what can wait. Prioritising like this can help make issues easier to deal with.
Instead of seeing a big blocker that’s impossible to shift, chipping away at it in stages can help even the biggest mountain seem surmountable. And by tackling the most urgent needs first, you can feel you’re staying on top of the issue.
Imagine a small food company lands its biggest ever order – 10,000 prepared meals – but it must deliver within 72 hours.
This is way beyond its current staffing, transport and production levels.
However, it can meet the order by first ramping up its food ingredients for supply, then hiring emergency agency staff, offering generous overtime pay to existing colleagues to cover the extra hours, and calling in a favour to borrow extra vans from contacts.
Whenever you get stuck, and time allows, a break can often help you reassess what’s gone wrong.
Try focusing on another task for 30 minutes before another try or – if urgency allows - leave the problem and come back to it the next day. Revisiting a tricky task with fresh eyes and reinvigorated thoughts can allow you to see it in a different way.
Known as the ‘incubation effect’, it’s understood to be most effective when you either switch off entirely and let yourself daydream, or engage instead on a simple alternative task.
3 Try a fresh perspective by ‘visualising’ your problem
If you can visualise a problem, it could bring a useful new perspective – especially when you’re dealing with a great deal of complex information.
A 2019 study in South Africa found children were more likely to solve a word problem if they drew a diagram to help them: by using visualisation, they gained a deeper understanding of the task in hand.
The same principle applies in business although more refined techniques have been developed. For example, logic trees can help you identify your objectives and compare possible solutions while mind maps can help with brainstorming. It may sound old-fashioned but if you’re stuck on a problem, this ‘pen and paper’ approach could help you see another side to a possible solution.
4 Use your own – and others’ – experience
You can draw on your experience of previous problems, whether at work or in your personal life, to try and help solve today’s challenges.
Individual setbacks may be wildly diverse in nature but they often carry enough similarity for you to be able to try out solutions that were successful in the past.
Say you’ve identified a drastic lack of communication between two teams or departments that’s holding up a project.
It’s likely you’ve dealt with similar problems before - perhaps a clash of egos lay behind similar breakdowns, a lack of understanding of processes, or wilful lack of co-operation.
The way you managed to repair relations in the past should be able to give you a strong indicator for a solution this time.
See if you can bring in other perspectives too. Everyone approaches problems in slightly different ways and brings their own experience to an issue.
Being able to tap into a wide range of views can trigger ideas that may not be obvious if you tackle a problem on your own.
This is known as being ‘cognitively diverse’ – having a difference in perspectives or ways to process information.
And where a workplace or team is more cognitively diverse, it tends to be faster at solving problems. For this approach to work, your colleagues must feel free to say what they really think.
As an example, take an organisation where a slump in revenue has led to poor service standards.
When asking employees for opinions on ways to boost turnover, it’d be key to explain that the problem-solving process is not about placing blame – instead, it’s about finding out how to improve the company’s collective performance.
This can then encourage a more creative response to the problem from team members because their fear of culpability has been removed.
In this kind of collaboration, be aware that much of a solution’s success will be down to its clear communication as well as execution.
5 Weigh up your options
Whatever the problem - personal or professional, major or minor - there’s usually more than one answer.
But once you’ve managed to devise a number of possible outcomes, it’s vital to pick one that best suits you and your particular set of circumstances.
This is often the trickiest part of problem-solving – having got so far in your search to find a way out, it can be a wrench to pick a poor response and end up back at square one.
Assess each possible solution and list its pros and cons, as well as any additional implications they may have.
Be as honest and thorough as you can with each to eventually decide on an apt solution.
As with visualising, don’t shy away from taking a pen to jot down a list of all your options – it can be a huge help to see your choices spelled out in front of you rather than as a complicated thought process.
6 Found a solution? Keep a close eye on it
As a rule, your problem-solving shouldn’t end when you’ve found a fix. It’s critical to monitor the situation and keep an eye on its success (or otherwise) in case you need to change tack swiftly.
One way is to set a time limit by which you’d expect to notice a boost or positive impact from your decision.
You can then review and – if necessary – try to make amends.
For example, a construction company may change its supplier to improve the standard of building materials and cut down the number of costly complaints about quality.
Over six months, this helps to reduce the number of customers unhappy at the quality of materials. However, the new supplier is frequently unable to provide the right supplies on time – prompting a rise in customer complaints about delays.
Managers must then address a new problem created out of the old one.
Think of problem-solving as an ongoing process. If you practise it regularly, it won’t just be a tool you draw on in a crisis but an effective way of improving your decision-making.
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