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Skills for Effective Problem Solving

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Problem-solving skills

An effective problem-solver uses many skills to devise and implement solutions including:

  • Creative skills
  • Research skills
  • Team-working skills
  • Decision-making skills, and
  • Risk-taking skills

Creative skills

Creative skills allow big and boundless thinking. They involve the consideration and analysis of ideas, concepts, and solutions that no one else has considered before. Thinking creatively requires you to set aside any biases or assumptions that you may hold and to take a different look at things. By approaching a problem with an open mind, you allow yourself the chance to think creatively. Often, a problem may seem to be insurmountable and it is only by practicing creativity and innovation that a workable solution can be found. Considering a problem from different viewpoints and being open to a change in perspective is key.

For example, the US Air Force Research Laboratory required an update for their supercomputer but the cost was well over their budget. So, by thinking creatively and looking for alternative solutions, they realized that they could purchase 300 PlayStation 3s that would fulfil their computing needs instead. To quote their creative decision: “The processors in the Sony PlayStation 3 are the only brand on the market that utilizes the specific cell processor characteristics needed for this program at an acceptable cost.”

Another example of creative problem-solving is from the inventor and founder of Dyson® vacuum cleaners, James Dyson. While his competitors were focused on how to design a better filter for the paper bags in their vacuum cleaners, he came to the realization that he had to approach the problem from a more creative direction. The result was that he created a ‘cyclone’ vacuum cleaner which could separate dust from air, and brought the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner to the market.

Research skills

Another important set of skills for problem solving are research skills. How can you find out what you don’t know? By doing research.

Being able to demonstrate the following competencies is key to ensuring your research is effective:

  • Attention to detail
  • Critical thinking
  • Planning and scheduling
  • Technical skills
  • Statistical and Graphical Analysis of Data, and
  • Interviewing

Because data is so easily accessible these days, it is important to check that the data you are relying on has come from a trusted source.

Team-working skills

Team-working skills are also very useful when it comes to problem solving. If you lead a team, you can help your team or colleagues to solve problems in many ways.

Create easy wins to begin with. Pick the ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the team to practice upon, that is, the tasks that are easiest to achieve, or the problems that are easiest to solve. Resist the temptation to offer a solution to hurry the process along; act as a facilitator instead and guide your team toward the answers. The greatest impact can come from giving the accountability of owning both the solution and the implementation of the solution, to the team. By delegating the problem, you reinforce your confidence and trust in the work of the team.

You can also use the 'framing effect'. The ‘framing effect’ is a cognitive bias, whereby people decide on options based on whether the options are presented with positive or negative connotations; for example, as a loss or as a gain. Show your team or colleagues how to practice the skill of framing an issue from differing perspectives, for example, positive, negative, or neutral, and how to devise specific solutions for each frame.

Another method is to remove yourself from the team problem-solving equation. Consider the unintentional influence you may have that might lead to potential biasing of the group with your views. In addition, be understanding and willing to support the team by working across the organization to acquire resources and budgets.

Avoid getting angry at a failure by the team as this is almost always destructive. Instead, instruct the team to take a step back and pause to consider the situation and analyze what did and did not work. Give them time to consider how to respond, learn, and move on.

Be sure to avoid group-think by drawing in individuals with areas of expertise and knowledge not currently held by the team. A common pitfall of group-think is that the team narrowly focuses on their own held-knowledge and plays down any outside or differing viewpoints, limiting the possibility of the most effective solution as an outcome.

Decision-making skills

Decision-making skills are another key component of problem solving. According to the economist Evan Davis, “If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard.” This is true of many people, because due to their lack of experience, confidence, or authority, they resist the taking and making of decisions. The more decisions you make, the stronger your decision-making skills become. As long as you learn from your decisions and mistakes, then the more mistakes you make, the better it is for your decision-making ability!

Risk-taking skills

Having the ability to take risks is an important skill for effective problem solving. It is usually better to take determined risks rather than undetermined risks. Being able to distinguish between the two takes experience, skill, and knowledge.

An undetermined risk is a risk that is taken without performing due diligence or accounting for possible negative outcomes; that is, you may have found a positive solution, but you don’t know what the final cost will be or what the ‘knock-on’ effects are.

A determined risk requires detailed research, and while you may not actually achieve success, you know that enough research has been carried out to ensure that there is a high likelihood of success.

Many people become risk-averse from building pros and cons into every single decision they make. We tend to avoid taking risks for the following reasons:

  • A fear of failure
  • A fear of the inflated consequences of failure, and
  • A fear of handling the consequences of risk

However, a certain amount of risk-taking is necessary for every new solution, particularly in the beginning. Aiming to take calculated and well-informed risks only is a healthy and effective approach to problem solving.

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Cathal Melinn and Kevin Reid

Cathal Melinn is Digital Marketing Manager at Digital Marketing Institute.

  • 13 years’ experience in search and display
  • Worked at Yahoo! Search in 2005 as a Senior Search Strategist for the UK Financial Services vertical
  • Moved to the world of agency in 2010 as Head of Search and Online Media for five years 
  • Currently working at the Digital Marketing Institute as a Digital Marketing Manager
  • Previous clients include Apple, Vodafone, Expedia, Virgin, Universal Music Group, Amazon, Compare the Market, and HSBC

Kevin Reid is CEO of Personal Skills Training, Senior Coach at Kevin J Reid Coaching, Co-founder and Communications Director of The Counsel.ie, and Lead Collaborator of LeitrimMade.com.

  • A consummate and skillful international communications trainer, facilitator, and coach
  • Has over 15 years of learning development experience with individuals, teams, and entire organizations
  • Has facilitated communications workshops and training across numerous sectors in Ireland, the UK, Europe, America, and Africa

By the end of this topic, you should be able to:

  • Compare techniques for enhancing creative thinking skills.
  • Analyse strategies to improve problem-solving skills in the workplace

    The following pieces of content from the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library have been chosen to offer additional material that you might find interesting or insightful.

    You can find more information and content like this on the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library

    You will not be assessed on this content.


      Creativity Skills
      Cathal Melinn and Kevin Reid
      Skills Expert

      Creative skills aren’t just for artists and designers! Everyone can learn to be more creative. In fact, the ability to think creatively is an invaluable skill in today’s workplace.

      With the help of Cathal Melinn, you will learn how to enhance your creative thinking skills – which should help you generate new ideas, find innovative solutions to problems, and develop new products and services. You will also learn how to remove barriers to creativity and the importance of persevering when your ideas fail.

      When it comes to tackling specific workplace difficulties, you will be introduced to a six-step method you can use to solve problems. And you’ll learn about the skills you need to cultivate in order to be an effective problem-solver.

      You will also turn your creative attention to the art of giving presentations. You will discover how to create and structure an effective presentation, and the preparations you need to make in advance, as well as useful tips on how to deliver an engaging presentation and how to hold a Q&A session at the end.