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The Complete Guide to Problem Solving

by A Hospidales
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the word "think" next to a light bulb

What Is Problem Solving?

You have probably written it on an application, in a resume, or bragged about your skills, but what is problem solving really? Quite simply, it is the process of identifying issues and problems and then finding the necessary solutions to implement. This type of situation can crop up in the workplace and in your home life. The world is full of complications, and while problem-solving is considered a soft skill, it is a necessity for pretty much every occupation (and life).

“All problems become smaller when you confront them instead of dodging them.”

William F. Halsey

Before a problem can be solved you must first recognize that there is a problem at all. Problem solvers are naturally very observant. They see everything that is happening around them and are able to quickly identify when such an issue is present.

For instance, in the workplace, you notice that employee absence has increased. This is a problem, but there must be a reason for it. You then need to analyze the situation to determine the why before you can apply a solution to it.

At home, you may have noticed that you get stuck with all the nasty chores, that’s definitely a problem, and there is absolutely a reason for it. So, what are you going to do about it?

“Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.”

Robert H. Shuller

In your relationship, you have observed that your partner isn’t willing to take the lead in certain situations. It is a problem because it bothers you, but why is this behavior occurring and what solution can you put in place to change it?

Once you have identified a problem and identified that it is, in fact, a problem, you must solve it. If you have dealt with a similar situation before you can draw on your experience to find a solution. However, if you are facing a new challenge you will need to use your critical thinking skills to come up with alternative solutions to the issue. When you have a number of solutions, you need to evaluate each of them to determine which will be the most effective.

Then you implement that solution, but it isn’t over there. You will need to verify that your solution worked. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. A lot of people fall down on the final step; because they think once they have implemented their solutions the problem is fixed and it’s time to walk away.

“Sometimes problems don’t require a solution to solve them; Instead they require maturity to outgrow them.”

Steve Maraboli

You may be surprised to discover just how many careers require effective problem-solving skills, just consider the following:

  • Judge. This should come as no surprise; a judge has to hear the evidence and handle the situation while keeping the law in mind.
  • Mathematician. Math is all about solutions, and mathematicians use knowledge and problem-solving skills to address real world problems.
  • Chief Executive. Directing the activities of a company requires policies and strategies that allow the company to reach their goals, problem-solving is a must.
  • Biomedical Engineer. Their entire job is to analyze and decide how problems surrounding medicine and biology can be solved.
  • Psychologists & Doctors. Not only do they diagnose disorders they also have to determine the best course of treatment for their patients.
  • Environmental Engineer. They use their education to solve the problems the environment faces.
  • Actuary. Actuaries evaluate the probability of certain occurrences and assist employers in minimizing costs.
  • Detectives. It’s up to them to gather the facts, collect and analyze evidence, and solve crimes.
  • Architect. Not only do they design buildings that look great, but they have to factor in safety regulations, and what the buildings will be used for.
  • Nanny. When there are no parents presents it is up to the nanny to care for the children and solve the problems that come up.
  • School Principal. They don’t just sit in their office Monday to Friday, it’s up to them to ensure their school meets their goals.
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Waitresses
  • Plumbers
  • Oh and moms and dads too!

That is just a small taste of the many careers that require problem-solving skills, in all truth, every job requires some type of problem-solving Even the high school student bagging your groceries has to solve the problem of how to safely bag and cart your food when the heaviest items managed to arrive at the end of the order. So, don’t think there’s a job option you can choose that won’t require a touch of problem solving.

“Every problem is a gift. Without them we wouldn’t grow”

Tony Robbins

Furthermore, and most important every life requires problem solving skills, as we encounter problems each day in our personal and day-to-day lives.

In fact, even when you reach retirement you will find yourself solving problems without realizing that is what you’re doing. If you’re into gardening and you have an irrigation problem you will have to analyze the issue before you can find an appropriate solution.

Rise above your problems infographic
Rise Above Your Problems Infographic

Why It Is Important To Learn Problem Solving Skills

“Problems are nothing but wake-up calls for creativity”

Gerhard Gschwandtner

As mentioned above, everyone has to solve problems. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a high school student, a CEO, a parent, or a world leader. We face problems that require solving every day in life. You might be trying to save your rose garden or your company, you may be desperate to keep your job or solve world hunger.

It doesn’t really matter how big or small the problem is, everyone faces challenges and we all need to be armed with the skills required to overcome them. Of course, it’s much easier when you understand that there is a fundamental approach to the problem-solving issue. Sadly, the likelihood is that you never learned it because no one thought to show you. While for some it may come naturally, not everyone is as lucky.

“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”

Russell L. Ackoff

In fact, these approaches are simple enough to teach a child, there is no need for an MBA or advanced computer software. It’s an essential skill set for everyone to have.

  • We tend to forget that every problem is simply an opportunity for improvement. It might be given the name problem, but it could just be the stroke of luck you have been waiting for. An opportunity to improve a situation or a product. Problems don’t only arise because of negative events or external factors. It’s simply being aware of the possibilities around you, which is why the creative types tend to be effective problem solvers.
  • You should view a problem as the gap between your goal and where you are currently. It can arise because of a new way of thinking or knowledge, feedback, or a whole host of other reasons. It’s merely an obstacle that will arise, especially when you know what your goal is and where you are in relation to it now. You should view the solution as exciting as you analyze the possible solutions that may help you reach your destination. It’s easy to identify problems when you learn to understand the difference between where you are and where you want to be, or what you have and what you want to have.
  • Problems can also arise when you recognize the imperfection in a situation and believe there is a better way. You could say that hope can produce problems, but your hope is what will drive the solution. If your hope challenges you, it can only be a good thing.

“It isn’t that they cannot find the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem.”

G.K Chesterton

Nine Necessary Steps To Problem Solving

When you face problems in your daily life, they can be big or small. The small problems tend to be mind-numbing, while the larger ones often feel intimidating. You may even feel a mini-meltdown approaching as you struggle to understand the issue you are faced with and doubt whether you will be able to handle it.

No one can avoid problem solving, it’s a natural part of life, and it’s up to you to find the best possible solution for the problem that you are faced with.

“Problem-solving leaders have one thing in common: a faith that there’s always a better way.”

Gerald M. Weinberg

Of course, the best solution is to handle a problem before it becomes a real problem. You can identify issues early if you are fully aware and observant of what is going on around you.

In the workplace, you can get ahead by encouraging others to provide you with information and feedback on issues are soon as they crop up. If you are open to suggestions you will find yourself putting fires out when they are just sparks, as opposed to the constant fire fight that problems tend to become.

The key to solving problems is having all of the information relevant to a problem, as well as an understanding of who and what will be impacted by the issue. Remember the approach we mentioned above? This is what it looks like:

  • Step One: Define It. This step may sound simple, but a lot of people do struggle here. For the most part, this is because they react to what they believe the problem is, as opposed to understanding the problem itself. Define the problem by asking the following questions.
  • What is leading you to believe there’s a problem?
  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • How is it occurring?
  • When is it occurring?
  • Who is the problem occurring for (not who is the cause of it)?
  • Why is the problem occurring?

“Each problem that I solved became a rule, which served afterwards to solve other problems.”

Rene Descartes

You can define a complex problem by breaking it down until you understand each of the points above. Once you have done that you should verify your understanding of the issue by conferring with someone else.

Step One:

If there are several problems, you will need to determine which takes priority. Not every problem is urgent.

Step Two:

Gather The Facts. You need to know what’s going on, who is involved, what impact the problem is going to have, who will be affected, and what the cause of the problem is. You would be surprised what you don’t know, so when the problem doesn’t directly affect you it’s important to discuss it with those who are impacted by it. While it may be more time efficient to sit down for a group discussion, it’s more effective to speak to people individually.

“If you are unable to understand the cause of a problem, it is impossible to solve it.” –

Naoto Kan

Step Three:

The Root. Once you have had time to gather the facts, as well as opinions and feelings of others on the matter, you will need to discover whether you are looking at a symptom or the real problem. You may need to restate the problem in a different format to get to the root of this. Don’t be afraid to start over if you have to. You shouldn’t waste valuable time solving something that isn’t the root problem.

“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”

Duke Ellington

Step Four:

Generate Solutions. Think of this as a brainstorming session, you need to come up with as many solutions as you can. You’re not evaluating or judging the solutions at this time, you’re simply generating plenty of ideas.

Step Five:

Alternative Solutions. Once you’ve generated a treasure trove of solutions, it’s time to evaluate them. You should be critical of every solution that was generated because you want to find the most effective solution.

Step Six:

Find The Best Solution. Evaluate every possible solution before you settle on the ultimate solution. The average person will roll through step one and skip right to step six. This tends to backfire, so ensure that you follow the steps thoroughly. If you do, you will find that step six is relatively straightforward.

“Giving up is the most painful way of solving a problem.”

What solution is most likely going to provide a long-term fix?

What is the most realistic solution?

What risk is involved with each solution?

Step Seven:

Approval & Support. When you make a change, you have to gain approval and support. If only it was as simple as finding the solution and implementing it, right? This is true of home life and the work place, especially if you have kids. Negative thinkers automatically poke holes in a plan and will erect obstacles that they believe will halt progress. The most effective way to manage this situation is by considering those types of thinkers in the process so you can make them part of the solution or, have answers ready for them.

“Inside of every problem lies an opportunity.”

Robert Kiposaki

Step Eight: Implementation. Once you have the buy-in of those necessary you can implement your solution.

  • Once you have solved the problem how will the situation look?
  • What steps will be required to implement your chosen solution?
  • What resources will it take to successfully implement your solution?
  • How long will the process take?

Step Nine: Evaluate.

If you don’t follow through and follow up then you won’t know whether you have been successful. You need some type of monitoring system to ensure people understand the solution is being measured. When it goes well make sure you recognize success. If it goes wrong? Go back to step one.

“You can increase your problem-solving skills by honing your question-asking ability.”

Michael J. Gelb

Effective problem solving requires attention to detail and time, however, the process will be far more efficient if you do take the time necessary to solve the problem well. Think of a problem as you do a steep curve in a straight road. If you take it too fast you might spin out of control, but if you take it just right you’ll easily straighten up on the other side.

While problem solving is straightforward for some, many people stumble, simply because there are a variety of critical steps people tend to overlook. The proof is in the pudding and effective problem-solving requires following every step in the process, from identification to monitoring the implementation.

“Don’t bother people for help without first trying to solve the problem yourself.”

Colin Powell

In the early stages, it’s all about your observational skills and your ability to apply analytical and lateral thinking. These soft skills will assist you in properly assessing what is happening, allowing you to get to the core of the problem.

As you move through the steps of the approach you will need to demonstrate a persistence to find the right approach, as well as innovative thinking. People who know how to use their creative thinking skills will perform well during the process.

The implementation of your solution relies on a different skill set. There is a delicate balance of leadership and teamwork at play and a demand for resilience.

“There is no problem outside of you that is superior to the power within you.”

Bob Proctor

It’s all about negotiation and communication. Once the solution has been implemented critical thinking is again required, along with an attention to detail to monitor the results and make necessary tweaks to your solution.

  • Hone Your Skills. An ability to solve problems is important in everyday life and in every industry. There is no job or career that is immune to problems, nor are they are any home lives that avoid problems. In fact, your entire day may resolve around solving problems. You can improve your overall happiness by honing your problem-solving skills.
  • Practice brainstorming with activities like mind mapping.
  • Approach every issue what an attitude of what if. This will provide you with a chance to test out new approaches and solutions regularly.
  • Keep a journal handy so you can record every idea that pops into your head.
  • Complete logic puzzles (http://www.logic-puzzles.org) on a daily basis, crosswords and Sudoku are great choices.

Social Problem-Solving

Not to be forgotten, social problem solving is essentially real life problem solving. Essentially, it’s the academic way to describe everyday problem-solving. Social doesn’t mean that it’s just people related problems.

“Inside of every problem lies an opportunity.”

Robert Kiposaki

We use the term social problem solving to describe four different types of situations:

  • Community problems are issues that are societal, such as the crime rate, or litter.
  • Personal problems include health and emotional issues.
  • Impersonal problems may be money shortages.
  • Interpersonal problems are disagreements that you have with other people.

“Instead of thinking out the box, get rid of the box.”

Deepak Chopra

There are three basic concepts involved with solving social problems.

  • Problem Solving. This process is self-directed and involves the generation of solutions.
  • Problem. The definition of a problem is a situation that requires a response to be effectively managed. However, the solution is not obvious or readily available.
  • Solution. The response to the problem, and the ultimate outcome of the process.

Once the solution is identified, it can be implemented. There are two sets of skill sets required for each step.

Problem Orientation

“Solving problems means listening.”

Richard Branson

This is how people tend to approach problems. We all view problems differently, and this tends to be dependent on both our skills and previous experiences.

For instance, if you are faced with a leaking pipe the average person will find something to catch the spurts of water before calling for a plumber. A plumber, or someone with experience, will grab the tools necessary to fix the problem.

It’s all about orientation.

Key Problem-Solving Skills

“Your ability to solve problems and make good decisions is the true measure of your skill as a leader.”

Brian Tracy

When it comes to positive problem orientation, the necessary skills include:

  • The ability to view problems as a challenge, rather than an insurmountable difficulty
  • The belief that all problems can be solved
  • The belief that you have the capabilities to effectively solve problems
  • Understanding that finding an effective solution will require effort and time
  • Being able to motivate yourself to tackle problems immediately

The skills necessary to solve ration problems include:

  • An ability to research to gather facts and information
  • An ability to set goals when it comes to problem-solving
  • The ability to apply rational thinking to the generation of solutions
  • Strong decision-making skills
  • Implementation skills, which includes planning, organizing, and doing

The typical difficulties that people face when solving problems are with rushing to a solution without following the steps and thinking things through properly. The other issue tends to be with those who procrastinate and avoid dealing with the problem. A habit of passing the buck is the death knell to the problem-solving process.

“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”

Duke Ellington

Does this all sound like an attempt by the academics to define a normal human process? It might, but, how many indecisive people do you know? Problem-solving skills can serve you well in your personal life, as well as in the workplace. The basic crux of it is a complex process that is broken down into manageable chunks.

Final Thoughts

The truth it, it doesn’t matter whether you’re solving problems in your career or handling six children at home. The essential process is the same, you consider each element separately and focus your attention to find the most effective and efficient solution.

“A positive attitude may not solve your problems — but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”


You may not have a natural knack for problem-solving, but with the tips above you can hone your skills and become a real problem-solving professional. It might take time and effort, but just think of how much smoother your life will be when you know what it takes to handle even the most complicated of problems.

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6 days ago

Excellent guide! How great we would all feel if we’d look at problems not as stopping signs, but as guidelines. And what if we would always think “what benefit or hidden gift is found in this problem I’m having?” Wouldn’t that make things a whole lot different?

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