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How to improve problem-solving skills?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.

How it works: 

Sometimes a problem is a major life decision, and choosing one path over another can create ripples decades into your future. Choose wisely. Sure, you can check with your gut or ask friends, but a systematic approach wins every time. 

Problems never stop.

To be alive means constant challenges, big and small. Life’s question for you is not, how can I avoid problems, but, how can I eat problems for breakfast? I’m sure you’re dealing with multiple problems today, from what to wear to how to find more clients, to last night’s fight with your partner.

It’s tempting to throw up your hands, but when you cultivate a growth mindset you can learn to love your problems. If knowledge is power, then these problem-solving strategies will help you unlock your hidden strength.


Analyze the problem

Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes.

Example: Reviewing and documenting how processes currently work (i.e., who does what, with what information, using what tools, communicating with what organizations and individuals, in what time frame, using what format).

Evaluating the possible impact of new tools and revised policies in the development of your “what should be” model.

Generate alternative solutions

Postpone the selection of one solution until several problem-solving alternatives have been proposed.. Brainstorming and team problem-solving techniques are both useful tools in this stage of problem solving. A common mistake in problem solving is that alternatives are evaluated as they are proposed, so the first acceptable solution is chosen, even if it’s not the best fit. If we focus on trying to get the results we want, we miss the potential for learning something new that will allow for real improvement in the problem-solving process.

Evaluate and select an alternative

Skilled problem solvers use a series of considerations when selecting the best alternative. They consider the extent to which:

A particular alternative will solve the problem without causing other unanticipated problems.

All the individuals involved will accept the alternative.

Implementation of the alternative is likely.

The alternative fits within the organizational constraints.

Implement and follow up on the solution

Involving others in the implementation is an effective way to gain buy-in and support and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.

Regardless of how the solution is rolled out, feedback channels should be built into the implementation. This allows for continuous monitoring and testing of actual events against expectations. Problem solving, and the techniques used to gain clarity, are most effective if the solution remains in place and is updated to respond to future changes.

Four main steps in successful problem solving

Identify the Problem: The very first step in problem solving is to identify the problem. Problem solving is harder if one doesn’t know what “problem” to solve! This is often seen in engineering and math by reading the problem statement.

Make a Game Plan: The next step is to have a plan on what to do. In other words, just rushing in won’t usually go through. Know what skills, properties, and information would be useful in aiding your decisions. Don’t forget about backups in case Plan A fails.

Solve the Problem: As Rusczyk often says, sometimes, you just have to do something. A problem can’t be solved by just staring at it!

Reflect on Actions: Skilled problem solvers look back at their work. In math, it usually means figuring out if an answer is reasonable. In engineering (and other areas), problem solvers can look back and see what went right and what went wrong, so they can tackle a similar problem better next time.

Mastering problem-solving requires a growth mindset, the spirit of which Thomas Edison captured perfectly when he said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Every problem is figure-out-able.

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