In every aspect of life, problems are bound to arise. In a workplace, problems can come in the form of client complaints or issues with teams. In a school setting, you may face problems with learning or teaching. And, in personal relationships, problems may take the most complex shapes and forms. Mastering problem solving steps can help you succeed in your career and more.
While every challenge is unique in its nature, there are a few methods to problem solving that are worthwhile to learn.
What is Problem Solving?
The four basic steps to problem solving are:
1. Define the Problem
It’s common to conflate symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. When understanding what the root of the problem is, be sure to ask the right questions. If you’re problem solving in a workplace, get team feedback. If you’re problem solving in school, ask for the help of other students.
2. Create Alternatives
Once you know the problem you’re facing, it’s good to consider possible solutions. Often, there are a variety of solutions to the same problem. Be sure to exhaust all possibilities. This is another step where feedback and teamwork is useful.
3. Choose a Solution
Assess which solution will work best for those involved. If it’s in a business, then you’ll likely have to address the costs and benefits of any given solution. For problem solving in school settings, you may want to ask professors or mentors what they think will be the most effective.
4. Implement the Solution
Once you’ve chosen the best solution to a problem, you can implement it. If more problems arise, you will have to solve the problem again. But don’t give up! Overcoming challenges only makes you stronger.
What are Problem Solving Skills?
While problem solving is a skill in itself, it also intersects with other skills. These skills include:
There’s a difference between hearing and actively listening. Active listening requires the listener to give undivided attention to the speaker. By using active listening, you maximize problem solving skills because you can actually understand the problem when someone explains it.
Analytical skills are crucial for problem solving. Everyone brings a different opinion and understanding of a problem to the table. By critically thinking about what’s actually happening, you can create the best solutions.
In businesses, big data is becoming everything. Using data and research, you can prevent problems before they even arise.
Sometimes, when facing a problem, you will also have constraints. In fact, the constraints could be what’s causing the problem. Utilizing creativity can help to overcome such challenges by thinking outside the box.
Talking about problems and accurately describing their roots will allow for contributions from your team. In this way, being able to properly communicate can help to hasten problem solving.
Since challenges can have multiple solutions, you will need to know how to make a decision to implement the proper solution.
There are not many issues in life that require someone to be alone. Because of this, having a team with a strong foundation will help better address issues when they arise.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Problem Solving Process: A 7-Step Process
The following problem solving process is especially effective in businesses. When facing a challenge of any kind, leaders can rely on this method to come to a solution.
1. Identify the Issues
Different people may have different views on an issue. To identify the issues, allow everyone affected to share what they think is the problem.
2. Understand Interests
This is a critical step that is often overlooked. Once everyone has shared their views on a situation, it’s useful to analyze why they feel this way about it. In this step, you must be accepting of everyone’s differences. Understanding interests accurately also relies on active listening. By understanding interests, you will be able to better choose a solution that satisfies everyone’s needs.
3. Define the Problem
Defining the problem can easily be conflated by emotion. To efficiently solve problems, you should be objective rather than subjective. No matter if a problem is small like choosing what to eat or large like choosing your major in college, defining a problem accurately is the basis of solving it properly.
The Kipling Method: A well-known method to define a problem comes from Rudyard Kipling, a famous poet. The 6 necessary elements to describe a problem include:
- What is the problem?
- Why is it important to fix the problem?
- When did the problem start? What is the deadline to fix it?
- How did the problem begin? What’s its cause?
- Where is the problem happening?
- Who is affected by it?
4. Define the Goals
To solve a problem, you need to know what the goals are. In a team, it’s important that the goal is communicated. This way, everyone can work together to achieve the desired outcome.
5. Generate Solutions
Many times, a problem will have multiple solutions (unless it’s math)! To generate solutions, you can try these various methods:
- Brainstorm: Allow everyone (even yourself) to share opinions on what they think can be a useful solution. Don’t shut down ideas in this stage. First, let everything come up with and then analyze what is actually feasible or practical.
- Divide: Sometimes, problems are so big that they feel overwhelming and can lead to the fear of making a decision at all. Try to break down problems into smaller pieces to divide and conquer it in steps.
- Means-Ends Analysis: To achieve a particular goal, you can work backwards. For example, you may want to become a software engineer. For this goal, you want to earn a degree in Computer Science, but the problem is affordability. With the goal of earning your higher education, you can think of alternative solutions like an online and tuition-free education (the University of the People). In this way, you’ve taken the outcome and worked backwards to find a solution.
- Trial and Error: Problem solving often includes failure — but trial and error can lead to the best solutions. You have to be open to trying different solutions until you reach the right one through trial and error.
6. Evaluating the Best Solution
When assessing multiple solutions for a given problem, you obviously want to choose the best one. Here are some ways to do so.
- Eliminate Early: Ineffective solutions should be removed early on. Sometimes, it’s obvious what won’t work. If not, define parameters and budgets. If something is too expensive to implement, then it can quickly be removed as a solution.
- Develop a Decision Matrix: You can use a decision matrix to see solutions visually. You can create a scale, for example using the ratings 1-10. Then you can assign a percentage of importance to each criteria. Criteria can include: timeliness, cost, risk, manageability, for example. In this way, you can see what solution will be the best by creating this value system.
- Implement and Follow Up: Trust your analysis and, once you choose a solution, implement it. Be sure to track and measure if it’s helping to achieve your desired goals.
In a business setting, there are so many moving parts. It’s good practice to document problems and solutions to gauge their success. It also creates a history that one can refer back to down the line when the next problem comes to light.
Advantages of a Problem Solving Process
Having a problem solving process in place helps to alleviate stress. It also can provide the following benefits:
- There is consistency across an organization for how to manage problems
- The process promotes collaboration and teamwork
- The decision-process is informed, and therefore easier
- The solutions are rational and objective
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Activities and Games to Boost Problem Solving Skills
While problems themselves aren’t fun, there are fun ways to boost problem solving skills. These skills can be honed through games. Some problem solving games and ideas to practice to boost such skills include:
- Build a tower
- Scavenger hunts
- Escape rooms
- Human circle
Problem solving is not a one-size-fits-all situation. In different settings and with different people, problems look different. That’s because everyone approaches challenges from a different perspective.
However, there are basic needs in optimizing a problem solving process through problem solving steps. When facing any issue in your life, practice a positive mindset and start by defining the problem. By asking problem solving questions, you can generate solutions alone or alongside a supportive team.