Research has shown that interpersonal and problem-solving skills are the main drivers for workplace performance, not IQ. If you’re looking to build a kickass team, we think you should pack it full of great problem-solvers, and in this article, we’ll convince you of that too.
After we’ve looked at what problem-solving skills actually are and why they’re so important, we’ll look at four great problem-solving techniques your team can use straight away. We’ll then finish off by looking at the best way to assess the problem-solving skills of your candidates.
- What Actually Are Problem-Solving Skills?
- Why Are Problem-Solving Skills so Important at Work?
- 4 Common Problem-Solving Techniques Teams Can Use at Work
- Skills Testing – The Best Way to Assess Problem-Solving Skills When Hiring
What Actually Are Problem-Solving Skills?
The Oxford Dictionary describes problem-solving as “the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues.”
But come on, James. Surely we already know what problem-solving skills are, it’s being able to solve a problem, right?
At one level, you’re correct, but have you ever tried breaking down how you solve a problem? There’s a lot more to it – let me explain the process.
- Understand the problem – Problem-solving starts by fully understanding the issue at hand. This requires many supplementary skills such as good communication (mainly listening), empathy, and situational awareness.
The example – A Sales Exec goes to their manager with a problem – they’re struggling to hit their sales target. The Sales Manager sits down with them to understand the situation, where they are with their sales, and the gap to the target.
- Analyze the root cause – Next, great problem-solvers seek to understand why the problem exists by rooting out the underlying cause. This requires a wide range of analysis skills such as data-gathering, fact-finding, and interviewing.
The example – The Sales Manager goes away and gathers some information about the Sales Exec. They look at their CRM notes, speak with other team members, and shadow the Sales Exec on the job.
- Design creative solutions – Armed with all the information they need, the problem-solver gets creative and comes up with some solutions. To do this, they need skills such as creative thinking, collaboration, and options analysis.
The example – The Sales Manager comes up with some solutions to help their Sales Exec. Options on the table include additional training, a structured work plan, and re-prioritizing their workload.
- Implement their plans – With all the solutions considered, the problem-solver now has to put their plan into action. This is where the problem gets solved and will require skills such as project management, decision-making, and time management.
The example – The Sales Manager lays out the next steps with the Sales Exec, explaining the proposed solutions. The Sales Exec will do some re-training on the sales process and will re-prioritize their workload to focus on particular, high-value customers.
- Evaluate their solution – The work’s not done when the solution is implemented, as the problem-solver needs to evaluate the effectiveness of their actions. This will require skills such as observation, data-gathering, and teamwork to fully understand if their solution has been effective or needs to be tweaked going forward.
The example – The Sales Exec completes their training and focuses on particular customers. They begin to see some results and get much closer to hitting their target. The problem was partially solved, so the Sales Manager also decides to action some further improvements with the Sales Exec next month.
As you can see, problem-solving skills are actually pretty complex. They’re underpinned by a range of other skills such as:
- Situational Awareness
- Data Gathering
- Creative Thinking
- Team Working
- Project Management
- Decision Making
That’s why being an excellent problem-solver isn’t straightforward. It requires a broad mix of hard and soft skills that have to be executed together to effectively solve a problem.
Why Are Problem-Solving Skills so Important at Work?
The modern workplace is full of problems that need solving. As technology enables organizations to move faster, employees have to be able to solve complex problems fast.
“Employers like to see good problem-solving skills because it also helps to show them you have a range of other competencies such as logic, creativity, resilience, imagination, lateral thinking, and determination.”
Here are some of the benefits amazing problem solvers bring to an organization and those around them.
Problem-Solvers Work Well Under Pressure
When a problem arises, it needs to be fixed quickly. Employees with amazing problem-solving skills roll with the punches and tight deadlines to deliver when it matters.
To do this, expert problem-solvers react quickly to short-term situations while thinking proactively about future problems. That ability to act fast and effectively exuberates confidence, creating a sense of calm across the wider team.
They Create Amazing New Ideas
Problem-solving and creative thinking go hand-in-hand. The best problem-solvers don’t just put bandaids over an issue, they fix them in a dynamic, value-adding way.
Exciting, out-of-the-box thinking isn’t just good in the moment but creates an exciting, innovative culture across the organization. That helps organizations stay ahead of the curve and attracts other expert problem-solvers to join the organization, improving the workforce’s capability over time.
Problems Create Risk, and Problem-Solvers Fix Problems
From an organizational perspective, problems create risk. Even if a business process is slightly off-kilter, it can become a much greater issue.
Problem-solvers help organizations reduce risk in the moment while mitigating future risks before they even occur. That helps everyone sleep sounder at night and also removes financial liability from the c-suite.
Problem-Solvers Beat The Competition
Ultimately, excellent problem-solvers help organizations stay ahead of their competition. Whether through creative ideas, faster outputs, or reduced risk, organizations with awesome problem solvers find themselves delivering better products and services to their clients.
And as we all know, it’s the people that make an organization great, and problem-solvers are some of the best people out there!
4 Common Problem-Solving Techniques Teams Can Use at Work
If you’ve got a team of wannabe problem-solvers, the good news is that it’s a skill that can be improved over time.
Here are four problem-solving techniques you and your team can use to tackle problems in your day-to-day business.
Understanding a Problem – 5 Whys
If you’re trying to get your head around a problem, the 5 whys technique is a great way to uncover the root cause.
When presented with a problem, ask why that problem exists. Then for each answer, ask again four more times until you’ve drilled right down into the root cause of the problem.
This great diagram from MindTools shows the 5 whys problem-solving technique perfectly, drilling down into this delivery problem until the true issue is identified.
Analyzing a Problem – SWOT Analysis
Once you understand the root cause of a problem, you need to analyze the position you find yourself in to decide what to do next.
SWOT is a tool that’s useful across the business world, but for problem-solving, it’s a great way to begin formalizing a solution by considering the following:
- Strengths – What does the business do well that you’d want to enhance?
- Weaknesses – What does the business not do well that you want to improve?
- Opportunities – Does the problem present the business a new opportunity to succeed?
- Threats – Does the problem create a threat the business wants to avoid?
By viewing your problem, and a potential solution through the SWOT lens, you consider the internal and external perspectives to come up with a well-rounded solution.
Formulate Creative Solutions – Design Thinking
If your problem-solvers are struggling with new ideas, design thinking helps you get a fresh and unique perspective.
The 5-step process first helps problem solvers empathize with the problem, then begin defining and developing new ideas before prototyping and testing them.
Design thinking helps cut out the noise and refocus on the real-life benefits a solution can deliver. If you’d like to read more, check out this article on design thinking for problem-solving.
Implementing Action Plans – Trial & Error
For problem-solvers that need to come up with solutions fast, adopting a trial and error mindset helps deploy ideas quickly and gain rapid feedback.
When you take the trial and error approach, you commit to simply going ahead and trying different options to solve a given problem. When one fails, you stop and start over with another option.
The key here is to be comfortable with failure by adopting a fail-fast mindset to work through ideas until you find one that really sticks. This sort of philosophy is commonly used in software development, sports, and pharmaceuticals, where it’s easy to continually pivot to new ideas until you achieve the desired result.
Skills Testing – The Best Way to Assess Problem-Solving Skills When Hiring
As we’ve seen, being a rockstar problem-solver is about bringing together a broad range of skills, from communication to data-gathering.
Problem-solving is also an inherently practical exercise. It isn’t something you can get a degree for, and it isn’t something you can just write on your resume.
The best way to ensure a candidate is an amazing problem-solver? Put them to the test with a Toggl Hire Skills Assessment.
Toggl Hire allows you to really understand your candidates, assessing how they perform in a real-life situation to assure you that they can actually do the job. Best of all, we’ve got a Problem-Solving skills test already made up, so it’s as simple as just two clicks to get started.
But, if you want something more bespoke, we’ve got you covered, too, thanks to our 17,000-strong question library and the ability to create bespoke questions in 7 different formats.
Want to see how it works? Check out the explainer video below!
Forget IQ, problem-solving skills are one of the best indicators of workplace performance when you’re building a kickass team. While on the surface problem-solving skills may seem simple, it actually requires a complex mix of hard skills and soft skills to get it right.
Because of this complexity, traditional recruitment methods may not cut it, and we’d recommend a skills test to fully understand a candidate’s problem-solving abilities. After all, why take the risk when you can see how a candidate solves a real-life problem right before your eyes?
James Elliott is a Strategy Manager and Writer from London, UK. When not working on the day job, James writes on a variety of business and project management topics with a focus on content that enables readers to take action and improve their ways of working. You can check out James’ work on his website or by connecting on LinkedIn.