The ability to solve problems is a basic life skill that is essential to our day-to-day lives at home, at school and at work. We solve problems every day without really thinking about how we solve them.
Good problem solving skills will empower you both in your personal and professional capacities in life. Employers often identify everyday problem solving skills as a crucial component of their organization’s success as it allows for swift and agile adjustments to keep pace with the fast-changing global economy, Employees who are good at problem-solving are usually able to come out with practical and creative solutions that increase productivity and they are highly valued by their organizations.
While there are no prescribed ways to go about problem solving, there are certain steps that you can use to guide your problem solving process and to enhance your problem solving ability.
Here are 8 ways to improve your problem solving skills:
1. Focus on the solution, not the problem
Neuroscientists have proven that your brain cannot find solutions if you focus on finding out what went wrong and the people responsible for the problem. When you focus on the problem in this manner, you are effectively feeding ‘negativity’ to your mind, which in turn activates negative emotions in the brain. These emotions will block potential solutions from manifesting.
It is not to say that you should ignore the problem, just that it would be more productive to keep calm and think objectively. It helps to first acknowledge the problem, then to adopt a solution-oriented mindset to focus on finding possible answers to solve your problems, instead of subjectively speculating about what went wrong and whose fault it was.
2. Make sure you are solving the right problem
During a problem solving process, it can often be confusing to delve into one problem after another. Doing so can lead to a lot of digression and generation of unnecessary information unrelated to the core problem. This causes useful insights to be obscured in the deluge of information.
Furthermore, we tend to focus on identifying the symptoms leading towards the problem rather than treating them as clues that can lead us to the solutions that we are looking for. At the core of problem solving lies two two simple questions: (1) why did the problem occur and (2) how to go about solving the problem. By identifying the possible answers to these two questions, you will be able to immediately zero in on the real problem that is causing issues and be on a faster path to discover the ideal solution for that problem.
3. Apply creative thinking
Creative problem solving (CPS) is a way of solving problems or identifying opportunities when conventional thinking has failed. It encourages you to think out of the box to find fresh perspectives that lead to innovative solutions so that you can formulate a plan to overcome the obstacles to achieve your goals.
4. Seek advice
Understanding the creative approaches that others use for problem solving can provide inspiration for your own problem solving efforts. A mentor can provide you with perspectives that you have not previously considered. He or she can help you to uncover your blind spots that you are unaware of due to a lack of experience. Try asking someone else in your field for advice when you are stuck. Their sharings may spark off other problem solving methods that you may never have considered as a viable solution previously.
5. Ask ‘Why?’
Applying the 5 Whys strategy can help you get to the root of a problem.
By repeatedly asking the question ‘why’ on a problem, you can drive deeper, layer by layer, into the root cause of a problem. This is how you can uncover the root of the problems that you are facing by driving deep within to weed out undesirable errors, processes, decisions or actions lying at the core of the issues that you are experiencing. Getting to the root of the problem will provide you with the basis from which you can use to find the best solution to tackle the root problem once and for all.
Let us use the problem of being late to work as an example to illustrate how to incorporate the 5 Whys strategy into your problem solving toolkit:
- Why am I late for work?
I always click the snooze button and continue to sleep.
- Why do I want to continue sleeping?
I feel so tired in the morning.
- Why do I feel tired in the morning?
I slept late the night before.
- Why did I sleep late?
I wasn’t sleepy after drinking coffee so I just kept scrolling my Facebook feed and somehow I couldn’t stop.
- Why did I drink coffee?
I was too sleepy at work in the afternoon due to a lack of restful sleep the night before.
So that is it! We have uncovered the root cause of the problem of being late at work, which is the consumption of coffee and mindless scrolling of the Facebook feed leading to late nights, shorter sleeping time, tiredness when awake, and the pressing of the snooze button to catch more sleep. To solve the problem above, quit Facebook surfing endlessly at night and one will feel more energetic in the day. Coffee won’t even be needed and the problem is solved once and for all.
6. Simplify the problem
As human beings, we have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be! Try simplifying your problem by generalizing it. Remove all unnecessary details and go back to the basics. Try looking for a really easy, obvious solution. You might be surprised by how making simple tweaks to the status quo can turn the situation on its head and solve your problem.
7. Think laterally
Change the ‘direction’ of your thoughts by thinking laterally. Try to change your approach and look at things in a new way. Try flipping your objective around and look for a solution that is the polar opposite! Even if it feels silly initially, a different approach usually provides the impetus for a fresh solution.
8. List out your options for a solution
Try to come up with all possible solutions that you can think of, even if they seem ridiculous at first cut. It is important that you keep an open mind to stimulate creative thinking, which can trigger potential solutions. Remind yourself that no idea is a bad idea and that these ‘wild’ thoughts can either spark off solutions that you did not contemplate before or solutions that you previously dismissed as impractical.
Whatever you do, do not ridicule yourself for coming up with ‘stupid solutions’ as it is often the combination of these crazy ideas that serendipitously morph into viable solutions.
Like any useful skill, problem solving skills can be trained. By having exposure to more problem solving scenarios, you will be able to quickly identify root problems to develop impactful solutions. Do not shy away from problems when you face them. Take them as challenges to improve your current work processes so that you can become a better version of yourself.
If you would like to sharpen your problem solving skills further, consider signing up for our course to transform your problems into opportunities for growth to excel at your workplace!