What Is Problem Solving?
We all spend a lot of our time solving problems, both at work and in our personal lives.
Some problems are small, and we can quickly sort them out ourselves. But others are complex challenges that take collaboration, creativity, and a considerable amount of effort to solve.
At work, the types of problems we face depend largely on the organizations we're in and the jobs we do. A manager in a cleaning company, for example, might spend their day untangling staffing issues, resolving client complaints, and sorting out problems with equipment and supplies. An aircraft designer, on the other hand, might be grappling with a problem about aerodynamics, or trying to work out why a new safety feature isn't working. Meanwhile, a politician might be exploring solutions to racial injustice or climate change.
But whatever issues we face, there are some common ways to tackle them effectively. And we can all boost our confidence and ability to succeed by building a strong set of problem-solving skills.
Mind Tools offers a large collection of resources to help you do just that!
How Well Do You Solve Problems?
Start by taking an honest look at your existing skills. What's your current approach to solving problems, and how well is it working? Our quiz, How Good Is Your Problem Solving? lets you analyze your abilities, and signposts ways to address any areas of weakness.
Define Every Problem
The first step in solving a problem is understanding what that problem actually is. You need to be sure that you're dealing with the real problem – not its symptoms. For example, if performance in your department is substandard, you might think that the problem lies with the individuals submitting work. However, if you look a bit deeper, the real issue might be a general lack of training, or an unreasonable workload across the team.
However, defining a problem doesn't mean deciding how to solve it straightaway. It's important to look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. If you commit yourself too early, you can end up with a short-sighted solution. The CATWOE checklist provides a powerful reminder to look at many elements that may contribute to the problem, keeping you open to a variety of possible solutions.
As you define your problem, you'll often discover just how complicated it is. There are likely several interrelated issues involved. That's why it's important to have ways to visualize, simplify and make sense of this tangled mess!
Affinity Diagrams are great for organizing many different pieces of information into common themes, and for understanding the relationships between them.
Another popular tool is the Cause-and-Effect Diagram. To generate viable solutions, you need a solid understanding of what's causing the problem.
When your problem occurs within a business process, creating a Flow Chart, Swim Lane Diagram or a Systems Diagram will help you to see how various activities and inputs fit together. This may well highlight a missing element or bottleneck that's causing your problem.
Quite often, what seems to be a single problem turns out to be a whole series of problems. The Drill Down technique prompts you to split your problem into smaller, more manageable parts.
General Problem-Solving Tools
When you understand the problem in front of you, you’re ready to start solving it. With your definition to guide you, you can generate several possible solutions, choose the best one, then put it into action. That's the four-step approach at the heart of good problem solving.
There are various problem-solving styles to use. For example:
- Constructive Controversy is a way of widening perspectives and energizing discussions.
- Inductive Reasoning makes the most of people’s experiences and know-how, and can speed up solution finding.
- Means-End Analysis can bring extra clarity to your thinking, and kick-start the process of implementing solutions.
Specific Problem-Solving Systems
Some particularly complicated or important problems call for a more comprehensive process. Again, Mind Tools has a range of approaches to try, including:
- Simplex, which involves an eight-stage process: problem finding, fact finding, defining the problem, idea finding, selecting and evaluating, planning, selling the idea, and acting. These steps build upon the basic, four-step process described above, and they create a cycle of problem finding and solving that will continually improve your organization.
- Appreciative Inquiry, which is a uniquely positive way of solving problems by examining what's working well in the areas surrounding them.
- Soft Systems Methodology, which takes you through four stages to uncover more details about what's creating your problem, and then define actions that will improve the situation.
Further Problem-Solving Strategies
Good problem solving requires a number of other skills – all of which are covered by Mind Tools.
For example, we have a large section of resources to improve your Creativity, so that you come up with a range of possible solutions.
By strengthening your Decision Making, you'll be better at evaluating the options, selecting the best ones, then choosing how to implement them.
And our Project Management collection has valuable advice for strengthening the whole problem-solving process. The resources there will help you to make effective changes – and then keep them working long term.
Problems are an inescapable part of life, both in and out of work. So we can all benefit from having strong problem-solving skills.
It's important to understand your current approach to problem solving, and to know where and how to improve.
Define every problem you encounter – and understand its complexity, rather than trying to solve it too soon.
There's a range of general problem-solving approaches, helping you to generate possible answers, choose the best ones, and then implement your solution.
Some complicated or serious problems require more specific problem-solving systems, especially when they relate to business processes.
By boosting your creativity, decision-making and project-management skills, you’ll become even better at solving all the problems you face.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!