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How to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills
Sarah Brodsky / JULY 27 2021
Summary

You can think of all the tasks you do at work as a series of problems to be solved. Some of those problems are repeated many times and already have solutions prepared for them; for example, if a guest wants to book a room, the answer is to use your hotel’s reservation system to assign a room for their stay. Other problems occur only once in a while, and there may not be a process in place to solve them. In those instances, you’ll have to create a solution yourself.

You can use these strategies as you approach a new problem and work on a solution.

Find the finish line

Before trying to solve a problem, take some time to think about what a solution might look like. How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? 

For example, suppose the problem you’re working on is that your property’s electricity and water usage is increasing, which raises costs and impacts the environment. Meanwhile, your competitors are advertising their sustainability initiatives and attracting environmentally conscious guests.

Considering possibilities that either fall short or are too ambitious may help you zero in on a solution that’s just right. In this case, merely setting up a recycling program probably wouldn’t be enough to address the challenge. On the other hand, reducing your property’s carbon footprint to zero within a year is probably not doable. 

A good objective to aim for can likely be found somewhere in the middle. For instance, you might decide that creating a long-term sustainability plan, pursuing an eco-friendly building certification, and designing a marketing campaign to get the word out about your progress would constitute success.

Divide the problem into smaller parts

Even once you have one or more objectives to aim for, the problem might still seem huge and overwhelming. To make it easier to tackle, try breaking it down into its component pieces. For example, creating a sustainability plan might involve gathering ideas from successful sustainability initiatives, writing a list of possible steps for the plan, deciding which steps make sense and are realistic, writing up a draft, giving the draft to stakeholders to review, and incorporating their feedback.

Brainstorm

If you get stuck or find yourself overanalyzing the problem, use brainstorming to break out of the rut. Get a whiteboard or a piece of paper, or open a note-taking app. Set a timer for five minutes. Then, write down every idea that comes to mind, as quickly as you can. Don’t stop to think about whether each idea is smart–that kind of evaluation can happen later. Instead, just get everything written down. If you’re working on a problem with a team, you might go around the room and take turns sharing ideas or ask everyone to call out their thoughts.

Once the five minutes are up, read through everything you’ve got. Circle any ideas that look especially promising, and follow up on them first.

Research

The stereotype of the genius problem solver is someone who has a “Eureka!” moment. Maybe they’re in the middle of taking a shower or cooking dinner, and the solution to a problem appears out of nowhere, with no effort on their part. This meme may give people the impression that problem-solving always has to start from scratch and be instantaneous.

That may work in some cases, but most of the time, it’s easier to solve a problem if you see examples of how others have solved similar problems and if you have facts or data to help guide you. Doing some research allows you to benefit from the experience of others and can lead to better decisions.

Ask yourself these questions to direct your research:

  • Who else has dealt with this problem before? 
  • Does this problem exist in other organizations or other industries?
  • Are there any interviews, articles, or books that address this problem?
  • What statistics or numbers could be useful in solving this problem?
  • What charts or diagrams could make it easier to visualize this problem?

Get others’ input

When you’re faced with a difficult problem, make sure you aren’t attempting to solve it single-handedly. Other people can complement your approach to the problem because they bring knowledge, perspectives, and experiences that are unique to them. 

If you’re leading a team, delegate some aspects of the work so that each team member can make a significant contribution. If you don’t have a team behind you, reach out to mentors or colleagues and ask them if they have suggestions.

Find more problems to solve

Problem-solving skills get stronger with practice. As you tackle more challenges, you’ll become comfortable with a variety of problem-solving techniques. Then when you’re given a new problem to address, you may notice similarities with other problems you’ve faced before. You’ll be able to recall what worked well so you can apply those strategies to the current challenge.