How to improve your problem-solving at work: skills, models and examples
Highly valued by employers, problem-solving is needed in just about any line of work. We’ll show you how to step up your ability to take on workplace challenges below…
Whether you’re a seasoned manager or in a junior role, you’re bound to encounter challenges that need tackling head on during your week. And when it comes to overcoming them, fine-tuned, well-honed problem-solving skills are the way to do it.
If your problem-solving has been off in the past, then it can be difficult to take a step back before you act. Luckily, problem-solving is a skill to be learned like any other.
To help you get to grips with this valued skill, we’ll define problem-solving in detail, show you why it matters, and offer some pointers for improving your problem-solving skills.
What are problem-solving skills?
Problem-solving skills let us take on issues without resorting to hasty decisions and snap judgements. They’re what allow us to better understand the challenges before us so we can come up with solutions for dealing with them.
Depending on what the problem is, such skills may call on things like active listening, teamwork, creative thinking or mathematical analysis. Whatever you use to reach a solution, problem-solving is a valuable soft skill that most employers will look for in potential employees.
Why are problem-solving skills important?
Problem-solvers are equipped to take on what comes their way. When they have the right tools at their disposal, they’re in a better position to observe the issue, judge it accordingly, and act in the most effective way. And through experience, these skills become more refined and precise, allowing them to take on tougher problems.
So, why else are they important? Let’s look at what else problem-solving can add to an employee’s skillset…
Greater time management skills
When you know how to approach a problem, greater time management skills tend to come naturally. Because you can balance your time more efficiently, your ability to weigh up your options becomes more precise and considered, allowing you to make less hasty decisions that could make a problem worse.
More creative thinking
Those with strong problem-solving skills can always see the opportunity in a challenge. By tackling problems with innovative solutions, you might find that the result is stronger than you expect.
Improved performance under pressure
When deadlines loom or change is on the horizon, a lack of problem-solving skills could be what leads to poor or half-baked solutions. Because they’re naturally geared towards dealing with the unknown and the unexpected, problem-solvers are less inclined to feel pressure when it arises.
Greater addressing of risk
As well as the ability to deal with the issue itself, problem-solvers are well-equipped to address problems that could spring up later down the line based on trends, patterns and current events. This allows them to possess a degree of control over the future.
How to improve your problem-solving skills
So, how can you improve your ability to solve problems in the workplace? The following tips can help give you an edge whatever your position in a company may be.
Look for opportunities to solve problems
If you’re not used to taking them on, it can be easy to sit back and let someone else deal with problems. Instead of shying away from them, put yourself in situations where problems can arise.
We don’t mean deliberately making mistakes here, but taking on more duties in your current role, with another team or outside your organisation can help familiarise you with the kind of problems that can occur and ways to deal with them.
Observe how others solve problems
By shadowing your colleagues, you can learn problem-solving techniques and put them into practice yourself. Ask a colleague if you can observe their strategy, or schedule in a one-to-one to ask about how they take on problems.
Familiarise yourself with practice problems
There’s a wealth of resources in print and online that you can use to improve your problem-solving skills. These materials offer all sorts of scenarios to put your abilities to the test, unearthing skills you didn’t know you had.
An example problem-solving model
There are several problem-solving models out there, but typically, they follow the broad steps below.
Define the problem
Take a step back and analyse the situation. Are there multiple problems? What is causing them? How do these problems affect you and others involved?
Then, drill into the problem by doing the following:
Separate facts from opinion
Identify what has caused the problem
Discuss with team members to gather more information
Gather relevant data
At this stage, don’t be tempted to come up with a solution. You’re simply trying to find out what the problem is.
Identify potential solutions
While you may have only come up with one solution to a problem in the past, brainstorming several alternatives is a better approach. Ask colleagues for their input and get some insights from those with experience of similar problems.
In coming up with alternatives, consider the following:
Weigh up what might slow down solving the problem
Ensure your ideas align with goals and objectives
Identify long and short-term solutions
Write down the solutions you come up with
Evaluate your solutions
Once you have a list of solutions, you need to evaluate them further before acting. What are the positive and negative consequences of each? What resources will you need to carry them out? How much time and, if necessary, who else will you need to put the solution in place?
Choose a solution
Your evaluation should clarify which solution best suits the problem. Now it’s time to put that solution into practice.
Before you do, consider:
Does it solve the problem without creating another?
Have you reached a group consensus over the solution?
Is implementing it practical and straightforward?
Does it fit within company policies and procedures?
Put the solution into action
Once you’ve decided on the right solution, it needs to be implemented. Your action plan should include measurable objectives that allow you to monitor its success, as well as timelines and feedback channels your team can use during implementation.
Making sure this plan is communicated to everyone involved will also be key to its success.
Assess how effective the solution is
Your work isn’t done just yet! You’ll need to measure how things are progressing to ensure the solution is working as intended. Doing so means you can course-correct should further surprises arise, or else go back to alternative solutions.
How to show problem-solving skills on your CV and at interviews
As we said up top, problem-solving is highly valued by employers, so you’ll want to highlight such abilities on your CV, cover letter and in interviews.
Think back to previous roles for examples of when you used problem-solving skills. It’s not enough to say you’re good at problem-solving; employers will be looking for concrete examples, so be sure to mention them in your cover letter and use bullet points on your CV with specifics.
In interviews, you might be called on to describe times when you encountered problems in previous roles. Here, you should mention the processes you followed to address these issues, the skills you used, and the outcomes achieved.
Likewise, you may be asked hypothetical questions to show how you would solve problems. Base your answers on the steps above, and use the STARR method in conjunction with previous instances of problem-solving to give a detailed yet concise response.
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