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5 Steps to Problem Solving in the Workplace

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problem-solving skills

Problem-solving is one of those skills that helps us in literally every area of our lives. While some people may be naturally “good” at it, that doesn’t mean it’s a skill that can’t be taught. With a bit of one-on-one coaching, anyone can work on their problem-solving abilities to better address the challenges they face at work, or anywhere.

A good place to start is L&D programs for soft skills training, with a focus on problem-solving. These programs typically incorporate communication skills as well, which is an integral component of resolving issues. There are many useful models and mindsets that one can adopt when confronting a challenge, as we will describe below.

What Are Problem-Solving Skills?

Before we define problem-solving skills, let’s first define “problem-solving”. At its essence, problem-solving lets you go from challenge to solution. In the context of business, a problem is a barrier to productivity, profit, or stability. Problem-solving skills allow an organization to mitigate, or even totally avoid, the effects of a problem. 

Some people are born with natural problem-solving abilities. There are also organizations that believe that, unlike hard skills, it’s easier to hire such people instead of training them. But these companies need to realize that problem-solving skills training can be seen as a collection of other soft skills that can be developed, to some extent, in everyone.    

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

There are endless approaches to problem-solving – from Googling an answer to forming a permanent team to address recurring issues. One of the most popular problem-solving models is the IDEAL framework:

  • Identify the problem
  • Describe the outcome
  • Explore possible strategies
  • Anticipate outcomes and then act
  • Look and learn

Keep in mind that IDEAL is not necessarily a linear process. The “look and learn” step actually means trying out the best of the “possible strategies” created in phase number three, usually by applying it to only part of an organization. If this idea is not effective, or if the company still wants to explore alternatives, other strategies can also be implemented.  

What Skills Are Related to Effective Problem Solving?

Problem-solving skills cover several categories. Chances are that most employees are great at one, or more, of them. Working as a team translates into the ability to collectively address challenges. Of course, for organizations that encourage career growth/career development, employees should always be given opportunities to develop problem-solving skills. 

To give you a better idea, let’s break down the list of problem-solving skills according to the IDEAL model we mentioned above:

Identify

Leadership. Not every problem is caused by external factors. Sometimes, something within the company is leading to difficulties, and that can result in office politics and the blame game. Speaking up, despite any pushback that you may receive, is the act of a leader. To build such confidence, employees need to receive leadership development opportunities. 

Describe

Analysis. Cause and effect are essential to define in any problem-solution scenario. If you don’t really understand the issue, then your solution might be irrelevant. Those assigned to this task should have a strong background in research and data analysis. Organizational and industry experts might also contribute opinions, depending on the nature of the problem. 

Explore

Creative thinking. There may be one best solution to every problem, but the difficulty of coming up with that solution is what the challenge is all about. This happens, in part, because most people tackle issues from a certain starting point, depending on their personality and work experience. Training in creative thinking encourages people to look at challenges from a variety of perspectives.  

Teamwork. Actually, the best way to generate a bunch of problem-solving ideas is to work in a group. Building teamwork skills allows the group to formulate and evaluate solutions by getting everyone’s input. One of the classic methods of coordinating team problem-solving skills is with the Six Thinking Hats method.   

Anticipate and Act

Critical thinking. Once all of those potential solutions are on the board, it’s time to narrow them down to something workable. In a way, critical thinking is the opposite of creativity; instead of coming up with all kinds of ideas, you need instead to choose the most viable. Working in a group is an ideal medium for this because every person will examine the solutions from their perspective. For example, a software solution might be proposed, but your finance person will explain why it’s too expensive compared to another option. 

Decision making. It’s often up to one person to choose the top suggestion to implement. Of course, this is a leadership task, but it’s also an important element of improving problem-solving skills. The leader requires logic, the ability to prioritize, and good communication methods to explain to others – and even to themselves – why a certain path was chosen. These are leadership skills that every employee could use. 

Communication. Major hurdles often demand detailed fixes and lots of people to handle them. Explaining such solutions requires effective communication skills from the top of the organization on down. In addition, the employees responsible for actual implementation must be able to explain complications that they foresee, and any issues that occur along the way. Quality communication skills training can equip your staff for all of these responsibilities, and in all the modes that might be necessary, from emails to group discussions.  

Look and Learn

Talent management. All the communication in the world won’t help if your staff doesn’t have the implementation skills that they need. It’s often up to top performers to take care of vital projects, and if your problem-solution situation is critical, you’ll want talent ready to go. So it’s a wise move to prepare for crises in advance by developing your best and brightest through a talent management program. This is especially important when a threat might do serious damage to your organization. It’s during times like these that top employees start looking to jump ship. But employees who receive valuable development opportunities are much more likely to stay.   

Measurement. The question here is, did we get it right the first time? Only a person familiar with measurement techniques can provide a meaningful answer. Deciding on the viability of your first-choice solution will probably depend on both numerical data and a qualitative explanation of what did/didn’t work. Perhaps the best measurement techniques will leverage people from different departments and a variety of standpoints. In this case, another management skill – running team meetings – can come in handy.  

Why Are Problem-Solving Skills Important?

Don’t take our word for it. Problem-solving skills are near the top of the list for many organizations that are worried about the future. The World Economic Forum, in their most recent report, puts “complex problem-solving” in the number three position of their skills forecast. 

Problem-solving is a fundamental aspect of everyday life, from home to work and everywhere in between. Employees with good problem-solving abilities can independently plan their tasks in an effective way and come up with practical solutions.

On a wider level, problem-solving skills allow companies to survive. Take HR/L&D as an example. With the incredible rate of skill obsolescence in the modern workplace, it’s a huge challenge to close skill gaps with programs that take minimum time, impart maximum benefit, and still don’t disrupt important work. Now, if only there was some kind of technology that could help there…

What Is a Problem-Solving Mindset?

There is a certain attitude towards crises that is a real asset when difficulties arise. 

Some people embrace “challenges” instead of “problems”. This is an important difference. Those who are best at problem-solving enjoy the intellectual aspect of it. They put their emotions aside. Taking the fear out of dealing with serious issues allows us to be more open-minded, creative, and patient. 

L&D courses for problem-solving are an excellent way to develop the proper mindset. Employees who have been trained by experts practiced the IDEAL method and dealt with problems while not under pressure, are in a pretty good position. 

Another way to develop a problem-solving mindset is to attend organizational strategy meetings. This allows employees to see real-world problem resolution for situations that they thoroughly understand, instead of classroom hypotheticals, because the cases deal with their own workplace. 

Examples of Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace 

One of the greatest challenges in recent years was COVID-19 and its effect on businesses. It was truly a trial of problem-solving, and some companies turned it into a remarkable opportunity:

  • Nike focused on selling direct to consumers through their branded stores and website; the result was an 83% increase in digital sales in 2020
  • LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, a French holding company known for luxury products, adapted its perfume factories to manufacture hand sanitizer; the move greatly increased its brand equity as a company that helps people 
  • Spotify became a content creator as it started making its own podcasts due to the drop in advertising revenue during Covid; the move led to a 24% jump in subscribers

Let GrowthSpace Solve Your L&D Problems

One challenge that many HR people know well is that of delivering effective L&D programs. Tailoring courses to the specific needs of employees – particularly if there are hundreds of them – is nearly impossible. Understanding their requirements, and then finding the right specialists to teach them, is often beyond the ability of manual approaches. 

That’s why GrowthSpace has created a scalable, technology-based process for granular L&D initiatives. GrowthSpace’s talent development solution matches experts in precise fields to the exact skills that your employees need. Through our platform, we solve the problem of making your people better at problem-solving, rapidly and efficiently.