Our work lives are full of problems, in all sizes and levels of severity. As we all know, the tiniest niggle can fast become a significant issue if not dealt with appropriately. A productive workplace is imperative for hitting targets, and to achieve this, strategic problem solving is necessary.
Being prepared to learn is the first step, but you also need to develop the skills and techniques to successfully solve problems and make decisions. Once you’re equipped with the tools you need, there’s no complication you can’t overcome.
The outcome mindset: what is problem solving?
How do you approach problems?
Many of us have the same “problem orientation”: automatically perceiving an event as a "problem" and thus framing it negatively. We feel anxiety, reacting unconstructively as a result, either by ignoring the issue or seeking the easiest resolution, which isn’t always right.
The "outcome" mindset is a fantastic alternative. By switching our focus away from the roadblock and instead visualising positive outcomes, we steer clear of negative thinking, avoid wasting time by spiralling, and proactively look for solutions. Re-framing your problem as a challenge, or even an opportunity for improvement, can help you develop a long-term problem-solving strategy that benefits all aspects of your work.
Problem-solving skills and examples
There are many problem-solving tricks and techniques you can employ. Each one works well individually, but they are especially useful when utilised in tandem with each other to form a broader strategy. Let’s take a look at some.
- Creative thinking
Exploring problems from different angles is often key to solving them. When we let our assumptions and biases lead us, we can overlook or unfairly dismiss potential solutions. If you’d normally ask a certain colleague about something, try getting another perspective!
- Team working
Having confidence in your ability to problem solve is great, but stubbornly refusing help is counterproductive to a successful Agile team. It’s not just about reaching out to others for support and suggestions, but sharing your expertise and ideas with others as well.
- Emotional intelligence
Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence enables a more positive approach to problem solving. By successfully understanding, managing, and wielding our emotions, we can adapt how we feel and ensure strong emotions don’t cloud our judgements.
- Decision making
Decision making encompasses several other problem-solving approaches: take the information you’ve gathered, and use it to make a situational judgement based on what you know. Don’t get bogged down in the details: stick to facts!
- Time management
Managing your time properly is guaranteed to make problem solving easier. Worrying about finding time to get to the bottom of something means you’re not giving your sole focus to the issue at hand. The more organised you are, the less stressed you’ll be, and the quicker answers will come.
- Analytical thinking
By approaching your problem from a critical perspective, you can apply logic and reason to analyse any situation and form an evaluation, which ultimately helps you come to the answer you were looking for.
A problem shared is a problem halved! One of the easiest ways to solve a problem is to talk about it, and when you communicate clearly and efficiently with everybody on your team, you’re one step closer to your solution.
- Research skills
How often have you spent hours searching, only to realise you were looking in the wrong place all along? Knowing exactly where to go and what to search for will massively reduce wasted time and effort, so you can get back to problem solving.
The problem-solving cycle
When a problem first presents itself, our brains can enter default mode, searching for familiarity.
This can lead us to confuse a new problem with ones we’ve encountered before. At work, it’s likely you waste valuable time fixing problems that occur regularly. This is "single-loop learning" – we don’t establish why the problem is occurring in the first place, the root cause, so it keeps coming back.
Once you’ve addressed that root cause, you can try to stop its symptoms from recurring, otherwise known as "double-loop learning". The key to success here is to use a structured approach, like the problem-solving cycle below.
First, identify the problem at hand – what exactly is the issue? Once you know what you’re dealing with, it’s time to gather all the information you require, and identify the all-important root cause.
Having determined this, you can then begin to generate possible solutions and decide which one is best before implementing. It doesn’t stop there, however; monitoring the issue and conducting a review afterwards helps avoid single-loop learning, so hopefully the problem won’t reoccur.
How is problem solving changing in a VUCA world?
We live in a world of ever-accelerating change and digital transformation, often referred to as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Leaders play a key role in enabling their people, teams, and organisations to successfully navigate this environment, and one element of this is their approach to problem solving.
Professor Keith Grint believes that too often, leaders establish themselves as answer-givers –responding to requests with only a "do this or that” approach. The mistake here is this usually results in complex problems being treated as simple ones.
Grint notes that many problems in modern, digital organisations are far from simple and may have no single solution – or no solution at all, just opportunities to move forward. Adopting this approach also means organisations become dependent on their leaders for answers; people don’t learn to think for themselves.
Problem solving in the future requires leaders to ask questions, not give answers, encouraging and empowering their people and organisations to become individual problem-solvers, dealing with complexity in a more Agile and intelligent way.
The importance of problem solving skills
Whether in your own team or the wider working environment, problem-solving strategies are a vital set of skills you absolutely want on your toolbelt, making you as efficient, effective, and employable as you can be.