Problem-solving tips for the workplace

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Employers often list problem-solving skills on their wish list of personal qualities, but what does this mean in practice? How can you demonstrate them? And what can you do to develop them and deploy them? Business Optimizer considers.

Problem-solving covers a myriad of different skills – largely because its scope entirely depends on the problem that needs solving.

When employers ask for problem-solving on your resume or, in an interview, ask you for an anecdote that demonstrates your aptitude for it, what they are really looking for is an insight into your character. They want to know that you can demonstrate your ability to think on your feet, remain calm in stressful situations, and contribute to finding a solution.

Forbes writer Glenn Llopis says, “I’ve always believed that you don’t know the true potential and character of a person until you see the way they solve problems.

How to tackle complex problems

The good news is that problem solving is a skill. And, as a skill, it can be developed and refined through practice.

A solid foundational approach is a good starting point. By working through step by step, you can arrive at a sensible solution. We suggest:

  • Identify the issues
  • Understand everyone’s interests
  • Brainstorm ideas/ possible solutions
  • Evaluate the options
  • Select the best option
  • Document the agreements
  • Agree on contingencies, monitoring, and evaluation.

While this approach might seem simple, there are hurdles that can trip you up at each stage.

Work to clearly identify the real issues

It’s easy to rush to judgment when faced with a problem or challenge. But shooting from the hip never produces the best results. Even when we think we understand the problem, rushing headlong into finding a solution isn’t advisable.

It often helps to stand back from the problem and consider it in the round. To this end, the “Five Whys” approach is a fantastic troubleshooting tool. It is often used in the analysis phase of Six Sigma process improvement. It helps you get to the root cause of a problem.

As well as being a useful tool in your problem-solving toolkit, Five Whys is also incredibly easy to do. Simply define the problem and then ask “why?”. Brainstorm possible answers until you arrive at a conclusion. Then ask “why?” again. Continue until you have asked “why?” five times and, by that time, you should have a good insight into what the root cause of the problem is – and that very may well produce a very different set of countermeasures or problem-solving!

Open communication to understand everyone’s interests & brainstorm ideas

Getting everyone together to discuss the problem is a great way to understand the problem and brainstorm possible solutions. Active listening is essential. The Harvard Business Review offers the example of one UK charity’s approach to creating a safe environment for the people it helps. By immersing itself in their world, they could design a much better and safer environment.

Similarly, if the problem you need to solve involves your customers, it makes sense to spend the time to understand their perspective before trying to find a solution. This openness and willingness to actively listen must be echoed internally as well.

Problems arise when blame or self-interest comes into the picture. Glenn Llopis warns that “unnecessary silos invite hidden agendas rather than welcome efficient cross-functional collaboration and problem-solving… when you operate in a siloed environment where everyone wants to be a star, it becomes increasingly difficult to help make anything or anyone better.

Furthermore, he warns, “There are many people in the workplace that enjoy creating unnecessary chaos so that their inefficiencies are never exposed. These are the types of people that make it difficult for problems to get solved because they slow the process down while trying to make themselves look more important.  Discover the lifters and high-potential leaders within the organization and you will see examples of the benefits of being open-minded and how this eventually leads to more innovation and initiative.”

Negotiating these politics requires excellent people and communication skills.

Select, implement and control

Once you have brought people together and have several possible solutions in front of you, you can begin to evaluate their pluses and minuses, taking care to reflect the points of view you have brought together.

In his book Seven habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey suggests that effective people tend to think with the end in mind and then work backward. What happens if you do this for each of your possible solutions?

Either by taking the best from each possible approach or by selecting the best option on balance given the facts before you, you can then develop a plan. Document everything and remember to plan for foreseeable contingencies.

How might things change in the future and what will this mean for your selected solution? Finally, agree on a point in time when you will revisit the situation and decide whether your chosen approach is working.

By following this methodical approach each time you encounter a problem, you can tackle the next one with greater confidence each time.

How to develop your problem-solving skills

The ability to stand back from a situation and see the root problem is a very important skill – as are the communication and teamwork skills necessary to bring a team together to talk through the problem and possible solutions.

Your daily working life probably gives you many opportunities to hone these analytical, communication, and teamworking skills as part of your daily duties.

To supplement this, ICAEW recommends that you play games. It says, “Putting yourself in a situation, even a fictional one, where you have to think creatively will help you develop the same mindset in your everyday life.

Remember, the skills you develop as an effective problem solver are highly transferable.  Employers value problem-solvers because they are proactive thinkers who like to get things done. And you can even bring these newfound skills to bear in your personal life.