7 steps of effective problem solving in the workplace
We’ve all heard the famous jokes about changing lightbulbs, but what sort of skill does it really take to solve a problem? There may be a misconception that all it takes is industry or task-specific knowledge, and while this helps to add context to a problem, it won’t provide the solution on it’s own.
Some people are natural problem solvers. They can logic and infer their way in and out of almost any situation, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. As problem solving is such a crucial skill for the modern workforce to have, this week we are looking at how you can help to upskill those who may not take to it so easily.
At the bottom of the page you’ll find a template to help you plan out your soft skills training, but for now, let’s take a look at the key steps to effective problem solving.
7 steps of effective problem solving
1. Identifying the problem
This may seem a little obvious but problems are solved much more effectively once you take the time to really understand what’s going on. Whether you are working with more senior staff investigating budgetary shortfalls or a more ground-floor team trying to overcome a technical issue, getting to the root of the problem is what will ultimately help to solve it.
Identifying the problem isn’t as simple as labelling it. It requires investigation, research, and a thorough understanding of anything that may be buried beneath the surface.
2. Looking backwards
Often, before you can look forwards to the solution, it helps to look back to understand what may have caused the problem in the first place. Perhaps an error in a line of code, unexpected staff illness, or a missing link in communication within a team. One of the most important parts of scoping out a solution for any problem is understanding where things went wrong, not to seek blame or point fingers, but to understand how to move forward and avoid any similar issues in the future.
3. Understanding the wider context
Often, the roots of a problem lie in a wider context. The more people are impacted by the problem in front of you, the more often this is the case. For example, if you are part of a team creating a website, a functional requirement that needs to be in place may be impacted by design, front-end development, software development, content, UX, and digital marketing/SEO needs.
This is where research comes in. It’s always worth taking the time to understand who is reasonably impacted by a problem and speak to those involved to come to an agreement and find workarounds from different departments.
4. Getting creative with existing knowledge
One of the most important parts of problem solving, and often the most rewarding, is creativity. No one has only one set of skills, no matter how specialised. Knowledge of something seemingly unrelated can often help if you can train yourself to make those connections. You may have heard the term Creative Problem Solving, and this is a huge part of it. It doesn’t mean paint a nice picture or write a poem to solve your problem. Thinking outside of the box and being able to think laterally is a vital component of problem solving.
For example, your time handling stock management in a supermarket can help you pack more efficiently when moving house. Or that YouTube video you watched about psychology could help you in a sales pitch that seems to be going off track (like this video about motivation).
5. Asking for help
You know this whole “two brains are better than one” thing? Turns out, it is often quite true. Other people are often our greatest resource, so if you are lacking information in a particular area that you think may help provide a solution, or at least add more context to the problem at hand, go ahead and ask.
Getting other people involved in specific parts of the problem-solving process can be a great way to progress forward. Working at part of a team to get something fixed can be an absolute godsend. There can be some apprehension around involving too many people, but if this is something you’re worried about, take a look at our tips to improve teamwork from earlier in the series.
6. Listing potential solutions
Some issues are small and simple, and one clear option comes to mind relatively quickly. However, bigger problems often crop up unexpectedly, so taking a moment to pause and list your options is essential to making a rational and actionable decision. Anything from a house build that suddenly needs an extra room to unexpected long-term staff absence can throw a spanner in the works but there are multiple solutions available.
Taking the time to write a list of possible options will help you to rationalise the decisions you’re about to make. Often, writing these things down on paper turns them from abstract hypothetical to real tangible solutions, and will help you to see which ones are realistic and effective.
7. Actioning, monitoring, and reporting
The final step is to put your chosen solution(s) in place. If you can, it is great to test several of these in order to ensure the best outcome, but regardless of testing it is important to monitor the progress of this solution and report on it once in place/completed. This doesn’t have to be a formalised report in the form of a spreadsheet or dashboard. It can be a simple presentation to management, communication in a newsletter, or simply noted down in your organisation’s self assessment documentation. The important thing is that the whole process is monitored and documented to allow this set of problem-solving to be used as an educational tool in future.
Making mistakes and solving problems are a huge part of the learning process, but the outcomes are only positive in the long term if these issues can be learned from.
Many of these soft skills allow for a cycle of continuous learning in the workplace. From time management to team work, communication to leadership, this series is here to help you understand the fundamental steps of developing soft skills in your organisation.