19 Ways to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills at Work - ThriveYard

19 Ways to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills at Work

by Duncan Muguku

This article discusses step-by-step ways to improve your problem solving skills at work.

Topics addressed include breaking down a problem to understand it better, digging a little deeper to find out what caused the problem, and ascertaining how widespread the problem is including how many people are affected.

Other steps outlined consist of figuring out potential solutions then narrowing down to select the best possible option under the circumstances.

Once a problem has been figured out, dealt with or resolved, additional processes entail monitoring the progress of the solution and proactively taking action to prevent future problems.

Towards the tail end of problem solving is taking in the lessons learned and helping others who might be facing similar problems which we have overcome.

You can quickly skim all the 19 tips on handling problems on the table of contents below and then click on any tip to read further details. Please enjoy reading. Thank you.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Finding out what caused the problem/Conducting research
  3. Analyzing the impact of the problem
  4. Brainstorming possible solutions
  5. Evaluating alternatives/solutions
  6. Choosing the best option
  7. Developing an action plan/Execution strategy
  8. Implementing the solution/Taking action
  9. Monitoring progress
  10. Evaluating the results
  11. If the solution does not work
  12. Problem solving mistakes
  13. Ways to increase your problem solving skills
  14. Challenges and obstacles in problem solving
  15. Causes of problems at work
  16. Problem solving skills
  17. Learning from others who have solved similar problems
  18. Examples of problems at work
  19. Best practices for problem solving

 

1. Defining the problem

Why is the problem a problem? The first step in problem solving is to begin by describing, explaining or outlining the problem.

In its simplest form, a problem is an issue that is out of alignment and requires to be attended to, fixed or corrected to enable desired outcomes to be achieved.

There could be a temptation to quickly jump into figuring out solutions however, if the problem is not well understood, the solutions might not be effective and valuable time and effort could have been wasted.

Write down the problem based on your own understanding. This helps in zooming into or focusing on a specific issue. Similar to how a camera zooms on to an image before taking a picture. If the focus is blurry, the image won’t be clear.

Alternatively, think of it as identifying the starting line in a race, once you have figured out the beginning point (the problem), you set the stage for figuring out the skills, information, knowledge or resources required to get to the finishing line (the solution).

 

2. Finding out what caused the problem/Conducting research

What caused the problem? Once you have clearly defined the current problem, the next step is to dig a little deeper to find out the root cause or background of the problem.

Some questions to ask include the following:

  • When and where did the difficulty, obstacle or complication occur?
  • Why did the problem happen?
  • How did it happen?
  • What led to the problem?
  • Was it caused by one thing or many things?
  • What information is missing?
  • Where can you find more information?
  • What could have prevented the problem?
  • What is known about similar problems?
  • What solutions have been tried before?

 

3. Analyzing the impact of the problem

Who or what is affected by the problem? Determine how widespread the problem is.

  • Is it affecting one person or many? – How is it affecting them?
  • How long has the problem been going on?
  • Are there any trends?
  • Is this a re-occurring problem or a completely new one?
  • What would happen if the problem is not resolved?

Talk to different people to get first-hand accounts of the impact of the problem. Establish if it is severe or manageable.

 

4. Brainstorming possible solutions

What are the potential solutions? Identify possible solutions through brainstorming.

When brainstorming, state the problem, and then request everyone to independently write down their own individual answers.

Afterwards list down all the answers proposed and invite others to further build upon and refine the suggested solutions or propose additional solutions.

For a brainstorming session to be successful, the problem needs to be clearly defined, enough time needs to be scheduled, participants should take time to think through the problem and generate solutions, and solutions should not be judged during the brainstorming.

In addition, use a good facilitator to listen attentively to participants, encourage input by all and drive the discussion.

 

5. Evaluating alternatives/solutions

How do you select the best alternative? Once a good number of options have been gathered, the next step is to go through the alternatives and narrow down the ones that are most viable.

It is also possible that the top choices would be a merger between one or more other alternatives.

Identify the advantages and disadvantages of the top choices.

In addition, take a step back and write down the desired results, when they should be achieved as well as how the results will be measured i.e. what is expected after the problem has been eliminated or handled – imagine how it would be like when the problem is solved.

Analyze how best the top choices would lead to the desired results.

 

6. Choosing the best option

Will this solution solve the problem? The last step in brainstorming is deciding the best solution among the top alternatives available.

This step could be one of the most difficult and overwhelming and could trigger hesitation because of fear of making the wrong decision.

There could be a tendency to want to continue digging further to come up with more information or more alternatives.

Additionally, choosing an alternative could entail making compromises and some parties would have to make concessions therefore, there is a possibility that not everyone would be happy with the final solution.

However, at some point the decision making process will have to come to an end. Following your gut instinct and seeking advice from others can help in deciding.

You can also take a break to clear your head, relax and then make the decision with a clear mind and be able to easily explain that – “this solution is the best one because …”

Taking a poll is similarly a simple way to determine the solution that should be implemented for bigger problems.

 

7. Developing an action plan/Execution strategy

How will you prepare to act on the solution? Write down the final solution and come up with a plan of action for implementing it.

Break down the solution into smaller manageable steps.

The number of steps would typically vary in proportion to the complexity of a problem where generally the more complex the problem the more steps would be required to address it and vice versa.

Outline the actions that need to be done, determine who needs to do what, how much time is available, establish timelines, deadlines and gauges or ways to show if the results are being achieved.

Think about possible unexpected emergencies and risks then highlight a plan for addressing them.

 

8. Implementing the solution/Taking action

How will you put the solution to work? Here is where the actual work gets done. Keep the desired results or end-goal firmly in your mind then proceed to work on one step at a time.

If working with others, share the plan for solving the problem. Provide training if needed on how to accomplish the desired objectives, assemble and distribute needed resources and be available to answer clarifying questions that come up.

As you work, periodically check your progress against the action plan to ensure that you are making strides in the right direction.

When you often or regularly work on implementing different solutions, you are likely to discover better, simpler and efficient ways of solving problems.

For example, if tackling a problem for the first time takes x hours, after handling the same problem many times you are likely to fine tune your methods resulting in less time to solve a problem and more improvements and efficiencies. Better yet, you can even train others on your breakthroughs.

 

9. Monitoring progress

Is the problem getting corrected? Track the progress to see if the solution is working. Take a pulse check to get insight and feedback.

Under ideal circumstances, if the solution is the right one, the problem should be gradually dissipating the more the solution is implemented.

Generally, there would be a need to make tweaks here and there to either address issues that arise or to ensure that the solution has the best chance of succeeding.

Regularly check to see what is going well and what isn’t and make adjustments in good time.

If there are significant deviations from the anticipated, expected or projected outcome, find out what is causing this.

Some questions to ask when monitoring the progress of problem solving consist of:

  • How much progress has been made so far?
  • What amount of work is remaining?
  • Does everyone know what they are supposed to be doing?
  • Are we within schedule?
  • Are we within budget?
  • Have we met initial milestones or targets?
  • What challenges have we encountered so far?
  • What recommended changes are needed at this point?
  • What are the next milestones?

 

10. Evaluating the results

Was the problem fixed? At the end of the problem solving process, it is helpful to find out if the solution was successful.

A few questions that you can ask when evaluating results include the following:

  • Did we resolve the problem within our earlier planned schedule, timeline or deadline?
  • Did we eliminate the problem within budget?
  • Is the problem fully resolved?
  • Is there anything that has not been completed?
  • Are there any lessons learned?

Conclude by documenting the results. Some items to document include the date when the problem was fixed, who ascertained that the problem was resolved and how the problem was handled or resolved.

 

11. If the solution does not work

The problem was not fixed, now what? The simple reality is that some solutions work and others don’t.

Some solutions can address part of a problem and conversely some solutions can even magnify the problem or reveal an even bigger problem.

When a solution does not work out as expected, of course time and resources would have gone down the drain, nonetheless, go back to the drawing board and figure out another solution.

Other remedies could consist of more time needed to allow a solution to work, more resources required, more funds or more expertise.

It is also important to analyze why the original solution did not work out to not only learn from mistakes but also to prevent repeating the same errors.

 

12. Problem solving mistakes

Below are examples of problem solving mistakes:

  • Refusing to admit or acknowledge that a problem exists.
  • Looking for quick fixes.
  • Thinking that there won’t be any problems.
  • Fixing symptoms instead of the root cause.
  • Focusing on putting out small fires instead of addressing the big picture problem.
  • Rushing to solve a problem before understanding it.
  • Fearing to share out of the box ideas during brainstorming.
  • Risk of group think during brainstorming or conforming to what everyone else is suggesting.
  • Not having an open mind during brainstorming.
  • Poor facilitation in brainstorming sessions.
  • Solving the wrong problem.
  • Looking for someone to blame or pointing fingers.
  • Not listening or not seeking feedback or solutions from others.
  • Thinking that you should have all the answers.
  • Solutions that are not clearly defined.
  • Lack of clear communication.
  • Assuming that people already know what to do.
  • Failing to give credit to staff who have fixed problems.
  • Fear of making the wrong decision.
  • Wrong assumptions.
  • Getting scared or panicking when a problem arises.
  • Procrastinating to make a decision or choose among alternatives.
  • Refusing to acknowledge when a solution is not working.
  • Doing nothing when a problem arises.
  • Taking a long time before attending to a problem.
  • Not being flexible or adaptable when assumptions and conditions change.

 

13. Ways to increase your problem solving skills

I believe that one good way of improving your problem solving skills in the office is to work on solving many problems.

You can do this by volunteering to participate in brainstorming groups or sessions and offering your input and ideas as well as listening to contributions from your colleagues.

Aim to actively work on implementing solutions to flex and stretch your problem solving muscles.

Over time, you can recognize trends or patterns in solving problems and also increase your capacity to tolerate ambiguity and unknowns at the beginning of a problem solving process.

Other ways of increasing problem solving skills include the following:

  • Observing how others solve problems.
  • Reading about problem solving techniques.
  • Practicing different problem solving methods.
  • Undergoing training on problem solving.
  • Challenging yourself to be a good problem solver and be comfortable making decisions.
  • Working on unrelated fields, assignments and different departments to cross learn new transferable subjects, skills, methods etc.
  • Playing games that help in stimulating problem solving abilities such as solving puzzles and playing chess.
  • Improving your research skills.

 

14. Challenges and obstacles in problem solving

Reasons why problems might not be solved include:

  • Ignoring or avoiding the problem.
  • Thinking that problem solving process takes too much time or effort.
  • Not having the authority to decide which solution should be implemented.
  • Procrastinating or inertia to resolve a problem because it could take a long time to figure out solutions especially for complex problems.
  • Thinking that the problem is more difficult than it really is.
  • Thinking that you have to figure it all out on your own.
  • Not asking for help.
  • Unwilling to take other people’s inputs.
  • Fear that implementation could be difficult.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Resource constraints; insufficient resources such as manpower and finances to properly address large scope problems.
  • Too many problems or difficulty prioritizing problems.
  • Resistance to change or new ways of doing things.
  • Not following through on solutions after the brainstorming stage.
  • Giving up too quickly when it takes long to solve a problem.
  • Not measuring progress.
  • Changing external factors causing the need to rethink or revise solutions.
  • Inexperience handling and solving problems.
  • Not wanting to deal with uncertainty.

 

15. Causes of problems at work

Workplace problems can be caused by issues such as micromanagement, lack of accountability, difficult work environment, too much red tape, lack of advancement opportunities and lack of recognition.

Other causes of problems in the office include: poor communication, undefined processes or procedures, lack of resources, financial difficulties, not being properly trained, boredom, lack of motivation and stress at work.

Additional factors are heavy workloads, poor performance, lack of planning, unclear expectations, poor customer service, strained working relationships, poor management, staff turnover, burnout and poor job fit.

 

16. Problem solving skills

Skills that can aid in improving problem solving include:

Decision making skills – useful especially in choosing between alternatives, identifying the best solution and being able to explain why the chosen solution is the best one under the circumstances.

Communication skills – helps in firstly letting others know that there is a problem then secondly in outlining how the problem will be corrected, thirdly in assigning responsibilities and explaining to others what they should be doing and fourthly in letting others know that the problem has been resolved.

Risk taking – ability to identify the pros and cons of an alternative and then arming yourself with enough information to carry out the plan of action.

Prioritization – when faced with many problems at work and being able to identify the most urgent and important problem that should be fixed.

Flexibility – conditions and situations change all the time therefore, willingness to re-analyze plans and assumptions and re-calibrate them as needed is essential.

Other helpful traits consist of willingness to receive feedback, determination and perseverance to see things through, patience, connecting the dots or figuring out the relationship between things and tolerance for uncertainty.

 

17. Learning from others who have solved similar problems

It is possible that this is not the first time a problem has been encountered, others within the organization or elsewhere might have encountered similar problems and successfully solved them.

A similar problem could have been previously resolved by a coworker, a manager, someone from a different department or office, a consultant, a researcher etc.

Learning from others helps to save time and boost confidence in problem solving.

It is especially important to have documented problem solving procedures for critical problems that have occurred in the past. This acts as a form of knowledge library that is stored within the organization and can be transferred from one person to another.

 

18. Examples of problems at work

Typical problems faced at the workplace include the following:

  • Lack of communication.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Missed deadlines.
  • Not meeting goals.
  • Difficulties getting along with others.
  • Conflicts between employees.
  • Gossip.
  • Poor leadership.
  • Financial problems.
  • Cost overruns.
  • Bad customer service.
  • Over promising or over committing.
  • External challenges and threats.
  • Difficult co-workers.
  • Lack of teamwork.
  • Poor attitude.
  • Disconnect between supervisors and subordinates.
  • Unhappy clients.
  • Insufficient or lack of feedback.
  • Job stress.
  • Difficult customers.
  • Low morale.
  • Lack of appreciation or recognition.
  • Poor work environment.
  • Inefficient or obsolete systems.
  • Duplication of efforts.
  • Inadequate training.

Example of a problem:
A simple example of a problem at the workplace is – “Failing to reach the branch office’s sales goals for the year?”

Questions to ask and analyze when diagnosing and resolving this problem can consist of the following:

  • What was the annual sales goal?
  • What percentage of the goal did we achieve?
  • What was the gap?
  • How were we supposed to reach the goal?
  • Did we break down the goal into smaller achievable tasks or milestones?
  • What processes or steps did we plan for reaching the goals?
  • What action did we implement?
  • Who was responsible for what?
  • What internal and/or external challenges did we encounter?
  • What systems or methods did we implement to monitor progress towards the goal?
  • Why didn’t we reach the goal?
  • When did we realize we wouldn’t reach the goal?
  • What are the consequences for not meeting the goal?
  • How can we correct the situation?
  • How much time do we have to fix the problem?
  • How can we prevent the problem from happening again?
  • What can we learn from our mistakes?
  • Have we met the sales goals in the past?
  • Have other branch offices met their annual sales goals?
  • How did others achieve their goals?
  • What can we learn from others?

 

19. Best practices for problem solving

Problem solving is an ongoing learning process. Whereas problems cannot be entirely eliminated at work, you can take proactive steps to improve the organizational knowledge and capacity for handling problems.

Below are some ways that can help you to be better equipped to handle new and old problems when they arise in the workplace:

  • Working collaboratively with others to solve problems.
  • Documenting solutions to known or resolved problems; saving steps learned in resolving past issues.
  • Constantly refining problem solving methods as new and old problems are resolved.
  • Preparing and utilizing checklists for various work processes.
  • Writing and implementing standard operating procedures and policies.
  • Using handbooks, guidelines, manuals and flowcharts.
  • Adopting quality control procedures at critical stages.
  • Regularly doing projections or forecasting and assessing progress against initial plans.
  • Learning from mistakes.
  • Regular staff training.
  • Conducting risk analysis and creating back up or contingency plans.
  • Using audits to ensure that laid down procedures are being adhered to and finding out if there are any compliance problems.
  • Regularly reviewing job performance through observation, reports, check-in meetings etc.
  • Using timelines and deadlines.
  • Generating insights from data collection.
  • Implementing stronger monitoring systems.
  • Encouraging a culture of ongoing process improvements.
  • Taking initiative to resolve problems.
  • Speaking up or voicing concerns early on when problems are detected.
  • Aiming for good and regular communication across the organization.
  • Listening to employees’ feedback.
  • Encouraging suggestions for process improvements.
  • Clear goal setting including long-term and short-term planning and goals.
  • Adopting better technology and systems.
  • Using external experts where needed such as consultants.
  • Keeping track and staying up to date with external forces and changes such as changing customer preferences, economic conditions, government regulation, competition, technological advancements, political changes etc.
  • Encouraging inter-departmental cross sharing of tips and tricks in addressing challenges.
  • Evaluating results regularly.

 

Conclusion

Problem solving entails making corrections and improvements when things don’t go as expected.

Some problems can be fixed in a short amount of time while others take longer to be resolved.

At a minimum, when faced with a problem take some time to figure out what the real problem is, what caused the problem and find out potential alternatives to address the problem.

Afterwards select the best possible solution, devise a plan for carrying out the solution then implement it. Finalize by monitoring your progress and evaluating whether the problem has been resolved.

 

Additional Resources on Ways to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills at Work

  1. Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace
  2. How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills
  3. 9 Ways to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills
  4. 6 Effective Ways to Enhance Your Problem Solving Skills
  5. 5 Ways To Improve Your Problem Solving Skills
  6. How to Improve Problem Solving Skills
  7. Seven techniques for boosting independent problem solving skills in the workplace
  8. How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills with These 8 Science-Backed Techniques

 

Summary
19 Ways to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills at Work
Article Name
19 Ways to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills at Work
Description
Learn step-by-step ways to improve your problem solving skills at work including examples of problems at work, defining the problem, evaluating solutions and best practices in problem solving.
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ThriveYard

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