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Could problem solving be the key to career advancement?

Almost all job seekers will have spotted some form of the following nestled among a list of person specification requirements: ‘an ability to problem solve’. That problem-solving skills feature in countless advertisements highlights a wider truth that they are integral – or, at least incredibly useful – to the majority of roles and workplaces.

Our innovation-driven economy demands the soft skills that allow change and opportunity to flourish – one of which is problem solving. Career experts have indicated the top three skills employers are looking for in 2022: alongside dependability and communication, the top response was problem solving.

All work environments, regardless of size and sector, encounter problems. Whether the issues are small or large in terms of scale and impact, occur on a daily basis or less frequently, or are likely to arise in certain business functions over others, they are nevertheless a universal reality shared by all companies. As such, it’s fundamental that employees and team members possess the necessary lateral thinking skills and know-how to problem solve on the job.

What is problem solving?

Problem solving is the mental process of defining a problem, determining the cause and severity, and then identifying, prioritising, selecting and implementing a solution.

There are four general steps to the problem-solving process:

  1.   Define the problem. In order to fully focus on the root cause of a problem, it’s important to separate the issue itself from any of its symptoms. Both cause-and-effect diagrams and flowcharts which document each stage of the process can support this activity. Examine the facts, underlying causes, at which stage issues are introduced, relevant data, fact-finding and information, and what expectation or standard is not being met.
  2.   Generate alternative solutions. Use brainstorming to explore various options, rather than immediately alighting on a single course of action or methodology. Team problem-solving can be extremely valuable, as diverse contributors offer a variety of ideas and perspectives. It might be useful to map out both short-term and long-term solutions, specifying as many viable alternatives as possible. Other skills that come into play in this stage include project planning and design, forecasting and prediction, and creative thinking.
  3.   Evaluate and select an alternative. Before arriving at an agreed decision, the best problem solvers consider if a proposed solution may create other issues, if all stakeholders’ needs are met and to what extent, and if the alternative fits with wider goals and processes. Aim to remove biases, evaluating all options by the same target outcome. Here, it’s necessary to discuss, analyse, work as a team, prioritise, employ test development and mediate.
  4.   Implement and follow up on the solution. Involving others in the solution helps to facilitate buy-in and minimise resistance to any future changes. Ensure that there are appropriate channels to monitor and feedback, measuring the success of the solution against expected outcomes. Pilot tests, trials, benchmark development and smaller-scale roll-outs may be wise routes forward, depending on the scale, complexity and costs associated with a given solution.

Why is problem solving important in the workplace?

There are multiple reasons why effective problem solving is valued in the workplace. One of the most vital is that problem-solving abilities underpin a wide variety of other useful competencies that employers often look for. These include: logic; critical and creative thinking; proactivity; resilience; teamwork and communication; imagination and innovation; adaptability; and determination.

While solving problems is often regarded as the remit of senior leadership, the entire workforce’s ability to tackle difficult problems and identify the best possible solutions should not be underestimated – it’s a critical resource. However, individuals who consistently excel at problem solving – bringing in new ideas and ways of thinking; finding potential solutions; creating opportunities; troubleshooting existing practices and processes; and saving time and money – are more likely to stand out from the crowd. This in itself can lead to opportunities; those who clearly demonstrate initiative and independence can be more likely to find themselves fast-tracked for career advancement over their peers. Good problem-solving abilities also help to build stronger relationships, allowing for more-efficient working, with partners, colleagues, suppliers and customers. At its core, problem solving is a path to reasoned, impactful decision making – an element required in every workplace.

On a separate note, individuals with effective problem-solving approaches at their disposal are also likely to see the benefits in their personal lives.

How to improve problem-solving skills

For those of us who aren’t natural problem solvers, there is always the possibility to improve.

Business leaders and employees alike can challenge themselves to think more laterally in order to find the best solution. Practise increasing awareness to approaches and methodologies that aren’t the more-immediate ‘go-tos’, and seeking alternatives from different standpoints. 

Simulating various types of problem-solving scenarios can help to exercise this mental muscle – such as maths problems and tackling case studies – with any learnings then translated into real-world settings. Seek advice from various sources, whether this is gathering research and data or speaking to stakeholders and subject-matter experts. Perhaps similar problems have been encountered and overcome before? Are there common problems in the industry and, if so, how are they addressed elsewhere? There is as much to learn from what has previously gone wrong as from what has gone right.

Indeed outline some further suggestions and problem-solving techniques:

  • Give the problem time and attention
  • Seek assistance and expertise
  • Learn from previous experiences
  • Split the problem into separate parts
  • Visualise the problem
  • Use trial and error

One of the most fundamental aspects of improving problem-solving capabilities is to grow resilience. Complex problems are not solved overnight, so do not give up easily.

Hone your problem-solving skills to excel in management and advance your career

If you’re hoping to progress into senior leadership and management roles, the University of Lincoln’s online MSc Management programme could give you the skills needed.

By studying this degree, you will have the opportunity to deepen your understanding of the principles of organisational management and business – including how to effectively navigate complex, fast-paced and challenging global environments. Your learning will encompass project management, human resource management, strategy, operations, entrepreneurship and more, aiming to equip you with the tools and techniques needed for modern management, all underpinned by expert support and flexible study options.