How to become an effective problem solver and what are the best problem-solving skills

Do you have strong problem-solving skills?

Everyone is born with the ability to solve problems to some degree. We are hard-wired with specific skills and others we learn throughout our lives.

I remember my children when they were young having a toy that required fitting shaped pegs into the same shaped holes. To begin with, it was a struggle to complete the task, but it did not take them too long to work out that if you rotate the peg, they fit. They had learned how to resolve the problem and then moved on to the next challenge that I presented to them. It was the process of trying and failing that taught them the skill set to complete this and similar particular tasks in the future. It is true to say that we are all problem-solving skills? Yes, we are but by varying degrees. As we become older the problems that we meet grow in frequency, complexity, and importance.

The task of fitting pegs into shaped holes does not really compare to the problem solving required to save the crew of Apollo 13 when they suffered damage to their craft in 1970. However, the processes involved to solve both problems are based on the same principles.

Problem solver

What is the problem?

We use many strategies in our approach to problem solving according to the complexity of the problem. There are two big mistakes that we often make if we have not fine-tuned our skills.

Not understanding what the real problem is the first. It is vital that we can distinguish the real issue from any symptoms of a problem. A good example to illustrate the difference would be someone going to the doctors complaining of daily headaches. The doctor might prescribe aspirin as this will ease the pain, but what is causing the pain? It might be that the person has an eyesight problem in which case glasses are necessary to solve the problem.

The second mistake is trying to solve the problem at once. There are occasions when a problem is quite simple, and a solution is readily available. Returning to the child trying to fit the peg. The solution to fitting the peg is to rotate it. Simple, the problem is solved. When the problem is more complex the solution will be complicated. Do not rush, take time to analyze, but obviously some problems that are potentially dangerous and do need immediate action. It may be necessary to take immediate action to prevent a catastrophe but then return to solving the problem.

Problem-solving strategies

Problem-solving skills

There are a number of strategies involved in becoming a functional problem solver; it is these strategies that need to be honed and developed to enable anyone to become efficient.

Identify the problem. As I have said, identifying the problem as opposed to the solution but consider that sometimes a problem can be different from a different person’s point of view so it’s a good idea to talk to everyone that is or potentially will be involved with the problem.

Identify solutions. With most questions, there will often be multiple solutions, again it is good to talk it through with others, it is not always possible for one person alone to think of all possibilities. By involving a team, it is easier to find all the practical solutions and since everyone is involved in the process they share in the ownership of the solution. I am a great fan of writing everything down. Put the problem in a box at the top and then bring down from the box a line for each solution in separate boxes below. What if. It is then possible to analyse each solution to find out what the outcome would be if that solution was used. Ask what happens if we use this particular action, does it solve the problem? When we work our way through this stage it may well be that there are several practical options, it is then necessary to find the best possible course of action. It is important to be careful that any action does not create any further problems. It is also important to remember that a solution to be considered should always be to do nothing.

Importance of problem-solving in business

Problems often arise with a degree of frequency in companies, and in many cases are extremely important even life-threatening. Most problems are however what I would classify as operational. For example, the supplier of a manufacturing company is unable to supply a material which could result in the manufacturing company being late in supplying merchandise to its customers. This could, in certain circumstances result in the manufacturing company losing its customer which could force the company to close. It is vital that most companies have within their structure people, teams of people who have the resources to resolve problems to ensure the smooth operation of a company. For many companies problem solving is not usually a consideration when the company sets up its structure with the assumption that senior management will be able to and should resolve any issues. There is often resentment when changes happen in a company if everyone is not aware of or involved with those changes. If a workforce is aware and involved with changes due to problem-solving, they will be more likely to embrace the changes.

Should we declare problem-solving skills on a CV

When compiling a resume and cover letter most people highlight their work experience as this shows to an employer that the candidate has the skills required for the job. It is also a smart idea to highlight other skill sets that may be useful on a resume. There are however many skill sets that are included that are not correct. For example, I have seen many people declare themselves as being computer-literate when in a job interview, they admit they can use word and excel. That is not being computer-literate. I have also seen problem solver added on many CV’s. These have been included by many people with the thought that a potential employer will be impressed by the skills and it will improve their chances of securing employment. Potentially an employer has seen the skills declared so many times that they disregard this comment or ask about it on the job interview. When compiling a CV be truthful, supply correct employment experience and if you are an experience problem solver declare it but give examples to verify. Once being employed within a large catering organization that had an extremely high staff turnover many unhappy customers, dwindling profits and facing the potential of losing a multi-million-pound contract. When we sat down to discuss the situation everyone said, “it’s a staff problem we just can’t get the staff.” We sat down and analysed the situation. It soon became clear that the problem lay within management. The recruitment process was not efficient; we did not have an effective induction programme; we did not supply adequate staff training. We acted, and within two months we had a stable well-trained workforce, customer complaints dropped, profits increased.