Solving problems is something we all have to do every single day–both at work and in our day-to-day lives.

The trouble is: Sometimes, finding the right solutions to those problems can be difficult.

We learn in school that problem solving means arriving at a value for X. This is great for an algebra test (and for most black and white problems), but solving more complex, layered, “gray area” problems… that’s different.

Say you’re a designer working on a task with various departments, for example. You need approvals and collaboration from the sales team, but no one’s answering your emails or calls because they’re stuck in meetings all day. The marketing team can’t agree on a final version. Leadership wants a design that will solve all of the brand’s UX problems. For this designer, there are a lot of layers to this problem.

We’ve all been in a similar situation.

So what do you do?

You’re going to need better problem solving strategies to cut through the ambiguity–that’s what. Let’s look at some better ways to solve the kinds of problems that show up in the working world.

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Why you need to make problem solving a skill

When you develop problem solving and decision making skills, you realize some immediate benefits. What are they?

Problem solving equips you for work

In the 1990s, research at Bells Labs found that IQ was not a predictor for work performance. Problem solving and interpersonal skills were. Having problem solving skills helps you deal with the dynamic problems that you won’t find in the classroom.

Problem solving equips you for more complex problems

Many of us solve minor problems by guessing, estimating, or making assumptions. Most of the time, this works if the problem is fairly simple. We can usually find a workaround using these tactics and some trial and error experimentation.

The trouble comes, however, when this strategy doesn’t work with more complex problems.

Nat Greene, author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers, says this: “Here’s where most folks go wrong,” said Greene. “Often, people use the same guessing methods they apply to easy problems to try to tackle hard ones–and they get steamrolled.”

In short: Tackling complex problems requires a working knowledge of problem solving as a skill set.

How to solve problems with a strategic approach

Problem Solving Method #1: Linear Thinking

Best suited for: Work and strategy problems

How it works: Ever notice that children always seem to ask “why?” They’re absorbing knowledge like sponges–and they’re doing it strategically.

In problem solving, this strategy is known as the “Five Whys.” This is a linear technique for breaking down a problem until you find its root causes. The idea is simple: State the problem, and then ask: “Why?” Write down your best answer. Keep on asking until you arrive at an answer that feels like the causal issue.

Workplace Problem Solving Skills-min

Once you’ve identified the root cause of the problem, the solution should present itself.

Example: As detailed in Bulletproof Problem Solving, job candidates for the consulting firm McKinsey were once asked to demonstrate their problem solving skills. The question: Did Sidney, Australia need a second airport?

Most candidates wanted to talk about air travel demand, but the most effective candidates broke the question down into its component parts. That included a series of “Why” questions that broke the problem down to specifics:

  • Why is a single airport not enough to meet demand?
  • Why are the current operating hours, number of runways, and flight schedule not working well enough?
  • Why would a second airport solve those problems–and would it make financial sense?

Key takeaways:

Think logically and show your work. Candidates who performed the best arrived at specific questions and followed a linear path of thinking. For McKinsey, the goal wasn’t just to see who found the correct answer. It was to see how candidates arrived there.

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Problem Solving Method #2: Design Thinking

Best suited for: Product problems, creative problems

How it works: Design thinking is an approach to problem solving methodology with the end user in mind. The first step is to empathize with the end user. After that, you’ll create testable prototypes for solutions that meet their needs.

Example: The Kingswood Trust is a charity for children with Asberger’s syndrome and autism. Katie Gaudion, a member of the product design team, decided to take an end user approach to their solutions. Rather than come up with her own set of questions, she spent time with Pete, a man with non-verbal autism.

Katie studied Pete’s actions, like picking at sofa leather. Immersing herself like this led to a change in thinking. Rather than seeing these habits as damaging, she was surprised to find them comforting. What if Pete wasn’t doing these things to destroy, but to enjoy?

It worked. According to the Harvard Business Review, this new insight “led to the creation of living spaces, gardens, and new activities aimed at enabling people with autism to live fuller and more pleasurable lives.”

Key Takeaways:

Immerse yourself in the problem. UberEats says they immerse themselves in the places where our customers live, work, and eat. They’ve introduced processes like having new team members shadow deliveries. The result: they’ve learned more about their customers and how they think.

Observe customer behavior and respond. In one case study, Bank of America observed how some savers would fudge their own budgets by rounding up. This led to the “Keep your change” program that appealed to frugal savers and attracted new accounts.

Problem Solving Method #3: Solutions-Based Thinking

Best suited for: Big picture problems, stuck problems

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How it works: Most people like to think of themselves as logical. Factual. Only interested in results. But as Nathan Greene wrote, we really just tend to guess our way through problems and hope for the best.

Solutions-based thinking turns that on its head. Rather than focusing on what we think should work, it shifts our focus. What actually does work?

In Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this principle was number two: Effective people tend to think with the end in mind–and then work backwards.

Example: Think about America’s animal shelters and the dog adoption problem they face.

The challenge? It’s not that America doesn’t love dogs. In fact, America loves dogs to the point of 40% of all households having at least one. The problem is that perhaps too many people have dogs. This leads to dogs being put up for adoption with high rates of dogs in shelters.

Starting from problem-based thinking might yield all sorts of solutions. A marketing campaign for higher adoption rates, logically, should work. Unfortunately, the “Save a Life – Adopt a Dog” campaign hasn’t been able to solve the whole problem.

Yet some shelters have taken a solutions-based approach. According to Harvard Business Review, Lori Weise, the founder of Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, has demonstrated that adoption is not the only way to frame the problem. Instead, one challenge is that so many former dog owners are giving up on their dogs too quickly.

Weise came up with a plan: whenever a family came in to hand over a pet, a staff member in the South Los Angeles shelter would ask if they preferred to keep the pet.

“Within the first year it was clear that the program was a remarkable success,” notes HBR. “Costs went down from $85 per pet to $60, and more families held on to their dogs.”

Key takeaways:

Ask yourself the “miracle question.” This is a concept from Solution-focused brief therapy: What will it take for you to imagine the problem as being gone? Get a clear picture of what a solution would look like. Start asking your “why” questions from this end.

Look for preventative solutions that reach the same conclusions. It’s great to get people to adopt dogs, for example. But is it even more effective to get fewer people to give up their dogs for adoption? Solutions-based thinking means focusing on what really works, not what you hope should work.

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Stop guessing: Come up with problem-solving strategies to move forward

Consult any book on problem-solving activities and you’ll find elements of the above strategies present in some form. That’s because good problem solving tends to rely on reliable principles.

  • Give yourself clarity on the true problem by asking yourself “why” questions.
  • Embrace new levels of thinking. Rather than guessing, find the bottom-line answer to your problem that you need to uncover, and work backwards from there.
  • Immerse yourself. Just as Katie Gaudion came up with new solutions for autism and Asberger’s charity by spending time with Pete, switch your focus to the end-user. Don’t fixate on what should Focus on what other people need.

There’s an old maxim: You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused it in the first place. Rather than guess your way forward, adopt the problem-solving techniques to arrive at an answer that makes the difference.

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