Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills – Steps, Processes & Technique
When you are faced with a problem, how do you go about solving it? Do you let it overwhelm you, or do you flex your problem-solving muscles and figure out the best possible solution?
People who allow themselves to be overwhelmed or ignore complex problems often become frantic and confused. They usually take a haphazard approach to thinking, and then they are dismayed when they find themselves floundering and making no progress.
Luckily, there is a much better way.
I’d like to introduce you to a problem-solving process that can help you face and tackle any type of challenge. With these 10 problem-solving strategies, you will strengthen your ability to always find a solution while enabling yourself to see real progress.
Once you begin to execute these problem-solving techniques, you will feel confident to face a problem right away.
What Are Problem-Solving Skills?
Problem-solving skills involve identifying a problem, coming up with possible solutions, choosing an appropriate solution, and then implementing it.
Often, there is more than one correct solution to a problem. But frequently, you are looking for the best solution that applies to your particular circumstance.
For instance, possible solutions to losing weight include eating less, adding healthier foods to your diet, walking 30 minutes a day, swimming three times a week, training for a 5K race, drinking more water, and many other effective solutions.
Your job is to find the solution that will work best for you and give you the most success.
Good problem-solving skills are essential in all areas of your life because we encounter problems to solve in one form or another nearly every day, from small things like getting stuck in traffic to major events like being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
A problem can be defined in one of two ways:
“Any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty; a question proposed for solution or discussion.”
The Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning explains that a problem:
“…is generally considered to be a task, a situation, or person which is difficult to deal with or control due to complexity and transparency. In everyday language, a problem is a question proposed for a solution, a matter stated for examination or proof.”
In short, a problem is something that’s hard to deal with and needs to be solved.
Examples of common problems in the workplace might include:
- Lack of motivation or boredom
- Conflict with a boss or coworkers
- Performance issues
- Burnout or stress
- Bad working conditions
Or maybe you’re dealing with problems in your personal life. For example:
- A strained marriage or divorce
- Financial worries
- Health issues
- Grief over the death of loved ones
- Issues your children are experiencing
- A decision to move, change jobs, or get an education
No matter what you’re facing, it’s important to actively cultivate your creative thinking and learn problem-solving techniques.
When you’re able to solve problems effectively, you will enjoy greater satisfaction in life. Your relational skills will improve, and your problem-solving abilities will make you highly valuable in the workplace.
The Importance of Solving Problems
We solve problems daily in all aspects of life. People who are good problem solvers are more likely to be successful in getting around obstacles and achieving their desired end result.
What’s more, solving complex problems doesn’t only help change your external circumstances. You’ll also feel happier and more confident in yourself, knowing you can solve future problems.
Problem-solving allows you to:
- Fix things that are broken
- Address risk
- Improve performance
- Seize opportunity
- Lower stress and anxiety
- Prevent more serious consequences
Having a problem-solving strategy will make you more attractive to hiring managers. In many cases, you might be asked in a job interview about your problem-solving skills.
It’s smart to think of an example ahead of time–a problem that came up at your last job and how you solved it–so you’ll be prepared. You can also mention the soft skills listed above:
“My communication skills, flexibility, and ability to think outside the box help me deal with problems in a timely manner.”
The more you practice effective problem-solving techniques, the better you will get at solving problems and the more reliable and trustworthy you will become in your field as well as in your personal life.
Understanding the Problem-Solving Process
When you’re setting out to solve a problem, what should you do first?
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to problem-solving, there is a general framework that you can use to help solve problems.
The problem-solving process is often broken down into seven steps:
- Identify the issue and its root cause
- Understand every angle of the problem
- List possible solutions
- Evaluate the options
- Choose an option
- Act on it
- Evaluate the results
I’ll explain this process and each of these steps, plus a few bonus steps. I’ll also share some further problem-solving strategies so you are well-equipped with solution-finding techniques that you can apply to various situations.
The important thing to understand now, though, is that you can use a structured process to improve problem-solving skills. You don’t have to shoot in the dark–simply follow the steps listed in this process.
What kind of skills should you cultivate to become a better problem-solver?
You can also work on things like your communication skills, analytical skills, and other key skills in life that will make you a better problem solver. These soft skills go hand in hand with being able to come up with solutions quickly.
Focus on the following:
This is a method of free-thinking used to generate ideas that involve thinking of a long list of possible solutions without making an initial judgment about how effective they might be. You can brainstorm with a group of people or on your own.
Collecting information related to the issue is a vital problem-solving tool as the more information you have about the root cause and contributing factors to a problem, the easier it will be to find solutions that work. Fact-finding can come from interviewing people involved, researching related problems, reading documents, analyzing data, and more.
When you’re a creative thinker, you’re able to look at a complex problem or an everyday problem and think of unique, original solutions. Your ability to come up with creative solutions will make you more marketable as well as more successful in meeting complex problems head-on.
Having communication skills is essential to work with others to solve problems. You need to not only be able to express your thoughts clearly and concisely without causing offense or contention, but you also need to be able to listen to others as they express their views until everyone is on the same page.
Like communication skills, teamwork involves being able to work collectively with others to apply problem-solving strategies. Often, two heads are better than one, and the wisdom you gain from collective intelligence will make identifying underlying causes and finding solutions much easier.
Analyzing involves being able to break up a complex problem into smaller parts so you can examine and evaluate it to understand the problem better.
You may find the root cause of the problem as well as contributing factors. Ill-defined problems are difficult to solve, so it is important to be able to apply problem analysis to any issue you are dealing with.
Time-management skills help you avoid procrastination and spending time on unnecessary tasks.
You can develop good time management skills by setting goals, making daily to-do lists, prioritizing your tasks, and reducing or eliminating distractions.
Troubleshooting is applying a step-by-step process to find the cause of a problem and then working your way to different solutions.
Common, well-defined problems, such as those that occur in the computer science field or automotive industry, may have a preset list of troubleshooting steps to follow.
Other problems will require you to develop a troubleshooting process as you go. Troubleshooting skills make you a valuable asset to any team.
When you take initiative, you do not wait for others to tell you what to do. You see a need and seek to fill that need. Often, by taking initiative, you can address an issue before a problem occurs.
One example in the workplace would be to sign up for training that will keep you up to date on the newest developments in your industry.
Being flexible is an important tool you will use to solve problems. It’s an essential skill in all aspects of your life. When you are too rigid, you often are not able to see creative solutions and different strategies that can help make your life easier.
There is often more than one good way to solve the same problem, and being open-minded will help you move from your existing beliefs to other effective ways of solving problems.
I know this is a long list, but you don’t have to do everything at once.
Even more, chances are you’ve already picked up some of these skills in your daily life without even realizing it. Keeping these skills in mind as you practice solving problems will help you become better at not only solution-finding but at everything you do.
10 Steps to Solving a Problem
In this 10-step problem-solving process, I’ll walk you through how to identify and implement the right solution to the problem at hand. In learning these steps, you will develop your critical thinking and elevate your problem-solving skills.
1. Take a Positive Approach
When a problem arises, it’s easy to enter panic mode or envision worst-case scenarios. Before you let your mind go there, take a step back and address every problem as simply another situation.
It is a challenge that you can handle, with the right approach. Part of that approach is thinking positively and creatively about the situation.
When figuring out ways to use creative thinking for problem-solving, I like to explore how geniuses solve challenges. They think outside the box, keep an open mind, and take a systematic approach.
It all starts with thinking positively about the problem.
One problem-solving strategy I like to use is to think of it as a situation, not a problem.
Problems are a fact of life; you can’t control when or how they occur, but you can control your attitude. The more positive your language and mental process are, the more confident and optimistic you will be when approaching any complication.
How can you develop a more positive outlook on life? This mindset shift can take some time.
You can’t snap your fingers and instantly become a more positive person overnight. However, there are actionable steps you can take to be more positive.
Start by focusing on the good things in your life. Yes, you have problems, but you have good things too. If you’re struggling to come up with anything that makes you smile, consider keeping a gratitude journal where you make an entry every day.
I also recommend positive affirmations and self-talk. Repeat phrases to yourself such as “There are good things in my life,” “I can come up with creative solutions,” or “I have good problem-solving skills.”
And of course, it’s important to surround yourself with people who are equally as positive and upbeat as you’re trying to be. The same applies to all aspects of your life. Read positive books, articles, and social media posts. Listen to uplifting music, and watch videos and movies that leave you feeling positive and optimistic.
Remember that every problem comes with a solution already custom-made for it. You just need to find it, and you can by maintaining a calm, positive attitude and steadily progressing through the different stages of the problem-solving process.
2. Define The Problem
Problem identification is a vital step in problem-solving processes so that you know exactly what you are dealing with. What might seem to be the root cause of your situation may be something entirely different.
Also, defining the problem will help you gather data, analyze the issues surrounding it, and find a potential solution.
What exactly is the challenge you are facing? What about this particular situation is causing you stress and anxiety? You must clearly define the problem to resolve it.
Not only should you clarify what the problem is, but you should also see what caused the problem. If you can’t conclude the cause of the problem, you may need to meet with other parties involved to determine the root before moving forward.
Sometimes a clear root cause cannot be determined, or there may be several factors that are causing the problem. In these cases, you can still move forward in finding solutions by defining what is currently hard to deal with and what needs to be changed or solved.
If you are working with a group, it’s important to write and rewrite the problem until everyone agrees that the problem is clearly and correctly defined. Each person will bring a unique perspective that will help clarify what the situation is.
Identify important details that define that problem, and weed out information that is extraneous or useless so that it doesn’t distract you from your ability to solve it or waste your time.
It can help to ask the following questions:
- Who is involved in the problem?
- What exactly is happening that is preventing forward progress?
- When did the problem occur and how often?
- Why is the problem happening?
- How is it affecting workflow or people?
Write out the problem so that it is easy for you and everyone else to see exactly what it is. It may help to draw a picture, diagram, or graph to fully visualize the problem.
When the issue is clearly defined, the solution may be obvious. But you may never find the solution at all if the problem isn’t defined.
3. Use Creative Thinking
As I mentioned in the first step, geniuses solve issues with out-of-the-box thinking. So you need to see the problem from every angle before you begin moving down solution paths.
You should think: Are there other problems that are affecting this obstacle? If so, you need to address it first.
It can be easy to have tunnel vision when you’re problem-solving, but there are usually multiple things at play with any dilemma. Zoom out from the situation at hand and see all contributing factors to the issue and listen to everyone’s point of view.
Meeting with others who may be involved in the process can offer you more brainpower to shed light on the problem. That’s why teamwork is so important. You can work together to look at what the issue is affecting, what is affecting it, and how to solve it.
It might feel as if you can work faster on your own. But when you collaborate with others, you’ll be able to come up with higher-quality solutions.
In fact, statistics show that 86% of employees and executives say lack of collaboration or ineffective communication causes workplace failures.
Don’t be afraid to sit down with people involved in the problem to work things out. People outside the problem can also offer a valuable third-party opinion. Their advice and ideas may actually be more helpful because they don’t have a personal stake in the issue.
When discussing the problem with others, replace “No, but” with “Yes, and.” For example, if someone says, “I think part of the problem stems from a lack of communication within the team.” Respond with, “Yes, and it can also come from people arriving late to meetings.”
This approach validates what the other person is saying so that all input is accepted as valuable and ideas are not negated. It also gives you an equal opportunity to add your ideas and input.
Think creatively by looking outside of your industry or situation for solutions. While it is helpful to analyze how others within your field or circumstances have solved a similar problem, you might find helpful insight in looking at how companies or individuals in other walks of life that have seemingly non-matching characteristics have approached related problems.
Ask “what if” questions. This can often help you think outside the box when solving problems creatively. As you look at potential solutions, ask,
“What assumptions can we get rid of?”
“What can we add beyond the expected solutions?” and similar questions to take a broader view of the problem and possible solutions.
State the opposite of the problem to get a different perspective on it. For example, instead of asking, “How can we encourage our existing customers to buy more products?” ask, “How can we discourage our existing customers from buying more products.” This process can lead to surprisingly effective solutions.
4. Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Part of addressing the situation from different directions is to come up with not just one but several solutions. There are likely to be multiple solutions to any single problem.
The first conclusion that comes to mind may not be the best one, but the more you focus, the more solutions you will find. That’s why brainstorming all possible resolutions is an essential step to problem-solving.
If you’re brainstorming together with a group of others, make sure to define a clear goal for the brainstorming session before you begin. Allow people time before the meeting to reflect on the problem. This will allow them to come prepared with ideas.
Throughout the session, record any suggestions that come up. You can write them on a physical whiteboard so that everyone can see them, or simply jot them down in a digital folder. Share these notes with attendees post-meeting and assign any follow-up tasks.
Reserve judgment until after your brainstorming session is complete. Some ideas may seem ridiculous or impractical, but say them and record them anyway. The goal is to move beyond existing ideas and look at the problem and possible solutions from every angle. Sometimes, an idea that seems far-flung can begin a conversation and flow of ideas that lead to the best solution.
Defining your end goal will help inspire unique ways you can get there. It can also help to pose the problem as a question and come up with conclusions to that question. Use the examples offered earlier of who, what, when, where, and how questions to get you started.
5. Find The Best Solution
Now, not all possible solutions you outlined will be a good fit. You should be able to narrow down each method and see which is the most effective for your issue.
After brainstorming all potential solutions, ask yourself, “What solution will likely produce the best outcome?”
Do this by comparing each of the results with the one you believe to be the most ideal. Which one is the best under the current circumstances? What will successfully solve the problem? Which one will lead to a better outcome in the future? What will prevent further problems? Is there more than one solution that we should apply for the best results?
It might take some time to work through each of your potential solutions. Some will quickly weed themselves out. In other cases, though, don’t be afraid to spend some time thinking about how a given solution would work.
Identify the pros and cons or benefits and costs of each solution to help you determine which one or more is best.
After looking in-depth at the various approaches, decide on the best solution for the situation.
6. Expect the Best and Prepare for the Worst
Before you jump at the chance to solve your problem with the best-fit solution, consider the repercussions of the solution.
Now is the time to jump to worst-case scenarios. What will happen if the solution fails? Knowing the answer to this will allow you to prepare if it doesn’t resolve your dilemma.
Even if at first you don’t succeed, you will learn something in the end. Don’t take it as a failure but as a learning opportunity.
Accept that it didn’t work and try something new. Determine what didn’t work and why to come up with additional possible strategies. Thankfully, you already have a list of alternative solutions that can help you find the right one.
Preparing for the worst is not about thinking negatively. Remember, the power of positive thinking will allow you to uncover more solutions. If you can train your mind to think this way, the more solution-oriented you will become.
Instead, thinking through worst-case scenarios is simply being realistic. This allows you to create a Plan B.
If one solution doesn’t work, which solution will you try next? Come up with a backup plan. You might move on to the next solution on your shortlist, or you might tweak things and continue working with your #1 idea.
Preparing for the worst allows you to end up with the best possible solution.
7. Set a Deadline
The next of my 10 problem-solving strategies is to create a timeframe for your solution. Determine:
- When to implement the solution
- How long it will take to complete
- When you expect to see results
What actions are necessary to meet this deadline, and who will be accomplishing it? List out the tasks needed and assign each one to an appropriate person.
It’s important to not only set a deadline, but also place standards on how you will measure its success. How will you know that you’re making progress, or in other words, what will be your key performance indicators (KPIs)? How will you compare the success of this solution against the success of another?
Determine what key performance indicators will allow you to measure the success of your outcomes and set a series of short-term deadlines to report. Clearly communicate these benchmarks with everyone involved.
Make sure people understand how you’re choosing to measure success so they can be successful by your standards.
8. Take Responsibility
Now that you’ve found the solution to the problem that you want to implement, consider how it will impact the situation if it works or if it doesn’t.
If your outcome doesn’t work, that’s okay, but it is your job to accept responsibility. Be ready to admit any mistakes and continue working to make things right.
Some of the most creative ideas never transpire because no one is assigned the authority to carry out the decision.
Taking responsibility for your decision doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be the one to implement it. There may be various people involved in the problem and different jobs required to accomplish the solution.
By taking responsibility for the decision you make, you’ll ensure that everyone involved knows what job they need to do, when they need to do it, and how the successful or unsuccessful completion of that job is defined.
9. Solve the Problem
Now, it’s finally time to take action.
Execute your solution so you can reach your defined goals and learn what works best. Continue communicating with everyone on board as you all work together to solve the problem.
However, not every problem will be solved easily.
You may encounter additional obstacles as you attempt to solve the initial problem. You can overcome any drawback by tapping into your creative mind and taking action consistently and persistently until you reach your goal.
As you work hard, you can develop your capacity to achieve more in the future. Every time you successfully solve a problem, you are developing your analytical skills, communication skills, and problem-solving abilities. You’re also increasing your confidence.
Next time you need to solve a problem, you can look back on the successful jobs you’ve done before.
10. Track Your Results
The final step of my problem-solving process is to track the results. Using the deadlines, KPIs, and scheduled reports you set in step seven will let you know immediately if you’re on track or falling behind.
When you reach your deadline, ask yourself if you met the goals you set out to achieve.
What worked and what didn’t work? Did you solve the problem? Did you solve it with the approach and timeframe you expected?
Answering these questions will allow you to understand if you need to take further action and help you improve your problem-solving methods for the future.
The best way to learn to problem solve is to simply do it. Jump in with both feet and start coming up with potential solutions to issues that need fixing. Over time, you’ll learn about problem-solving without even realizing it.
However, in addition to learning “on the job,” you can also take courses to help boost your skills.
Studying subjects like project management or data analysis is a good way to help you succeed in identifying problems, thinking of better solutions, and leading others with good communication as you work together to put your solutions in place.
Bonus: Further Problem-Solving Strategies
More good news: The process outlined above isn’t the only way to solve complex problems. In fact, there are many strategies you can implement for solving a problem.
Here are summaries of a few more problem-solving methods that you can learn more about:
The IDEAL process of solving a problem can help you look at situations objectively and remove the emotional aspects that can arise when a problem occurs. It works especially well for problems that may not seem to have a clear cause or may need more than one solution. The steps involve:
- Identifying the problem
- Defining what the problem is and the desired outcome
- Exploring possible solutions
- Acting on a solution
- Looking back to evaluate the effectiveness of the solution
Root Cause Analysis
Root cause analysis is actually a set of various problem-solving processes that aim to identify the main cause of a problem so that you can find appropriate solutions. The purpose of root cause analysis is to get to the root of a problem and prevent further difficulties instead of treating the symptoms of a problem.
At the same time, this approach to solving complex problems recognizes that there is value in treating symptoms for short-term relief while the larger problem-finding process is going on.
It also assumes that there can be more than one root cause and focuses on how and why a problem occurs instead of who causes it.
This method provides a structured approach to solving a complex problem, especially those that do not have a clear solution. Simplex problem-solving involves eight steps:
- Problem finding: Identifying what the problem is
- Fact-finding: Collecting information and data about the problem
- Problem definition: Clearly define the complex problem so you know what you are solving
- Idea finding: Generating possible solutions to the problem
- Evaluation and Selection: Choosing the solution that seems to like it will best address the complex problem
- Planning: Deciding how you will implement the solution
- Sell the idea: Get stakeholders on board with implementing the solution
- Action: Carrying out the solution
Appreciative inquiry looks at a problem from a different angle, or not at all. It focuses on what is going right instead of what is going wrong. It is often best applied when a change is needed within an organization or individual. This approach leans heavily on cognitive science and positive thinking.
It involves five steps:
- Define the desired outcome
- Discover what our strengths are
- Dream of what would work well in the future
- Design a plan to make it happen
- Deploy the action
Six Thinking Hats
This approach to solving a complex problem focuses on approaching solutions in a balanced way. Using the six thinking hats approach, you will ask yourself a series of questions based on six principles or divide your team into six different groups:
- The white hat will focus on facts and logic (objective)
- The red hat will focus on emotion and instinct (intuitive)
- The black hat will focus on predicting negative outcomes (cautious)
- The yellow hat will look for positive outcomes (optimistic)
- The green hat will focus on reducing criticism and increasing ideas (creative)
- The blue hat will focus on management and organization (control)
The 5 whys is an example of a root cause analysis tool. The purpose of using this problem-solving technique is to find the exact reason a problem is occurring by asking a series of “why” questions. After asking why five times, the cause of the problem and its accompanying solution should be clear.
Start Implementing Solutions to Problems Today
You don’t need to feel overwhelmed and confused when a problem arises anymore. Stress and unhappiness are simply byproducts of how you respond to those situations. Instead, you can look at each problem or difficulty by asking, “What is the opportunity in this?”
When you enhance your problem-solving skills, you will experience determination and a sense of calmness when the next difficult situation arises.
While you may not know how to resolve most issues right away, you will know the problem-solving steps to take to uncover the best response: Define the problem, determine the cause, discover the best problem-solving technique, take action, and analyze the outcome.
Follow this process over and over again and you will creatively solve your problems. After all, an effective way to solve problems is a skill that you can develop with practice.
To help you enhance your success, download my free SMART Goals Template. This resource is a good fit for someone who wants to achieve their goals and optimize their success. I walk you through how to set goals and plan ahead the right way. As you advance your problem-solving skills, you will experience more success in your daily life—for big-picture items and small ones alike.
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About Brian Tracy — Brian is recognized as the top sales training and personal success authority in the world today. He has authored more than 60 books and has produced more than 500 audio and video learning programs on sales, management, business success and personal development, including worldwide bestseller The Psychology of Achievement. Brian's goal is to help you achieve your personal and business goals faster and easier than you ever imagined. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin and Youtube.