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What are problem-solving skills and why are they important?

CareerBuilder | April 13, 2021

Problem-solving is a universal job skill that applies to any position and every industry. While everyone is tasked with some form of problem-solving in their workplace, not all employees are good at it.

What are problem solving skills - team discussing a problem in front of laptop.

Understanding the critical components involved in problem-solving will help you improve this skill set and demonstrate your expertise to employers. Strong problem solvers are a valuable addition to any team.

The four stages of problem-solving

You can use many different approaches to problem-solving, but you'll typically work through four distinct stages no matter what route you take. Understanding each step of the process will help you hone your problem skills to better serve you along your journey toward a smart, workable solution.

  1. Define the problem: Identify the issue that you're dealing with. Observe the problem area closely to form a detailed image of what's wrong. Analyze employee behavior, workplace policies, and operating procedures. Keep your focus on the problem at this point, and resist the urge to define the problem in terms of a solution. For example, "We need to improve training procedures" speaks to the solution more than the problem. "Sales documentation is inconsistent" better defines the issue.
  2. Brainstorm alternatives: This is one of the most important stages of problem-solving. It requires a careful balance of creativity and logical thinking. Compare all possible alternatives. Analyze the money, time, staff, and resources necessary for each approach as well as the return that you can expect from various strategies.
  3. Choose the best strategy: Strong decision-making is essential at this stage. After carefully considering all your options, you must select the best strategy for your problem and stick with your choice. Employees who waver or struggle to commit to a single plan don't make good problem solvers because they get stuck at this essential point in the process.
  4. Implement your solution: Implementation is the critical peak of the problem-solving process. This is where you draw up an action plan, share it with the appropriate personnel, and follow through with your chosen approach.

Essential skills for successful problem-solving

Problem-solving may seem straightforward at first glance, but there are many employees who stumble over one or more of the critical steps, failing to successfully resolve workplace issues. Successful problem-solving requires several important skills that will help you proceed efficiently from identification to implementation.

"You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created." Albert Einstein

In the early stages of problem-solving, you need to have strong observational skills. Rather than accepting issues at face value, you need to demonstrate lateral thinking and analytical abilities. These will help you properly assess what's going on and pinpoint the core cause of the issue.

As you explore potential solutions to the issue, you must demonstrate persistence. Finding the right approach to the issue won't come easily. Innovative thinking will serve you well. Employees who know how to utilize their creative thinking facilities will excel in the second and third stages of problem-solving, as they're able to come up with approaches that others have overlooked.

Implementing your solution requires its own skill set. This typically requires a careful balance of teamwork and leadership. You'll need to demonstrate resilience to withstand inevitable pushback from co-workers who resist change. Both communication and negotiation are important at this point. Once you've implemented your solution, you'll need to utilize critical thinking and attention to detail as you assess the results and tweak your strategy as needed to make sure the problem is successfully resolved.

Honing problem-solving skills

Problem-solving skills are important in every industry. There's no business that's immune to the regular onslaught of problems. Business Managers and office Managers may find that nearly every aspect of their daily routine centers around some type of problem-solving. When you're in a management position, one of the most important things you do is simply handle the day-to-day issues that arise for your employees.

Improving your problem-solving skills will give you a distinct edge both in a management job and in other positions within your company. You can hone your problem-solving skills by:

  • Practicing brainstorming activities such as mind mapping
  • Approaching everyday issues with a "what if" mentality, regularly testing new approaches
  • Keeping an idea journal where you jot down all your ideas, no matter how out-of-the-box
  • Working through logic puzzles and games like Sudoku
  • Following industry publications covering the latest software and strategies for common issues

Demonstrating problem-solving on your resume

Employers look for new hires who have demonstrated problem-solving skills. It's not enough to simply state "problem-solving skills" on your resume. You need to illustrate exactly what types of problem-skills at which you excel and show specific examples of how you've utilized these skills in past positions.

When you're demonstrating your problem-solving skills on a resume, you should concisely note how you identified the problem, developed a solution, and implemented this strategy.

Some examples of strong problem-solving statements include:

  1. Reduced safety violations 30 percent by installing strategically placed railings on the production floor
  2. Increased customer satisfaction ratings 20 percent by developing new scripts to address common questions
  3. Cut shipping expenses by 10 percent quarterly with customized software solutions

Make it clear that you saw a problem relevant to your department, found an innovative way to solve it, and achieved measurable results with your chosen strategy. Demonstrating problem-solving is important no matter what position you're applying for. In customer service, you problem-solve every time you deal with a difficult customer. As an accountant, you're problem-solving ways to cut costs and boost revenue. Contractors solve issues that arise when a client's requests seem unattainable for the given construction space. You're always problem-solving. Make sure potential employers can see that you're good at it.

Problem-solving skills are as varied as the issues they're applied to. However, all the best problem solvers utilize the same basic approach to identifying and solving problems, incorporating the skills mentioned here to leverage successful results. Make sure you track your problem-solving successes, measure the outcomes, and include these on your resume so hiring managers will have no trouble identifying you as a strong problem solver.

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