Problem-solving is among those skills that we all have to learn at some point in our lives and it remains an essential part of our abilities to cope with what life throws at us.

From learning to walk as a way of solving the problem of how to move towards things we want, to spending hours trying to solve challenges in video games to doing crosswords and sudoku puzzles, we face problems all the time without even thinking about them.

However, the time when good problem-solving skills are most critical is when we are at work. It can make the difference between advancing in our careers or not. Depending on what kind of work we do, it can even be the difference between life and death for those we are helping – if you work in the emergency services, for example.

But how do you know if you’re a good problem solver or not?

One way is to keep on doing things the way you’ve been doing them so far and hope for the best. If that’s your plan, it says a lot about your skills and style of solving problems. It’s much more effective to take a step back and think about how you approach challenging issues.

Do you rush headfirst at it, or do you pause for thought and start planning instead? There will always be urgent problems that require immediate solutions, but do complicated issues not require more analysis?

Do you normally rely on your gut instinct to solve problems? This can be a common tactic for people of all ages who believe that they have the instinctive ability to get results, whether it is due to an abundance of self-confidence or a lack of patience for processes and formalities.

It’s possible that you may have a good gut instinct that does get you through most problems smoothly, but if you take a proper look at how you do things, could they be improved?

How about when things start to go wrong with your solution? Do you power on through the obstacles without paying them much heed? Do you drop the plan straight away and switch to another one when the road gets bumpy?

Or have you already mapped out all of the potential pitfalls and come up with ways to resolve them? Are you a single-minded person when it comes to situations like this, or can you be distracted by other issues? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

And finally, when it comes to the end of the process when the issue has been resolved, what is the next step for you? Do you swiftly move on to something new or take the extra time to do a deep dive into this problem to investigate what caused it and look at ways of preventing it from happening again?

The Three Types of Problem Solver

Now that you’ve answered those questions, you should be able to identify with one of these three main types of problem solver:

  1. Systematic Problem Solver – If you take the time to evaluate the problem before tackling it and focus on analyzing the potential solutions thoroughly, you are a systematic problem solver. You’ll also be the kind of person who doesn’t rest when the problem is resolved because you’ll be busy putting processes in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  2. Intuitive Problem Solver – The complete opposite of the one above, you prefer not to waste time on processes and evaluations because you trust your gut instinct. Problems aren’t opportunities for positive change, they are just challenging to be tackled and then forgotten about as you focus on the next one.
  3. Inconsistent Problem Solver – Somewhere in between the previous two, you’re someone who knows that you should be following the right processes and taking a structured approach to problem-solving. However, it doesn’t always work out like that and sometimes you go with your gut instead and this leads to results that are as inconsistent as your methods.

So, now you have an idea of which type of problem solver you are, what can be done about it? If you’re an intuitive problem solver, you might have decided that you need to bring in more structures to improve the consistency of your results. Inconsistent problem-solvers need to refine their processes to become more systematic.

And if you’re already a systematic problem solver, you’ll know that you can always get better when it comes to enhancing your problem-solving skills.

Tips for Improving Your Problem-Solving Skills

Here are some suggestions for ways that you can improve your problem-solving skills, whatever kind of problem-solver you have found that you are:

1. Set a Deadline

When a problem first arises, it’s important to give yourself – and your colleagues or team – a time limit for coming up with a solution. This doesn’t mean rushing into anything, but setting a deadline forces you to quickly assess the pros and cons of a decision instead of procrastinating.

If the decision is a small one, why not give yourself no more than five minutes to decide? That should certainly get things moving.

2. Explore the Problem

Going with your gut instinct has one major flaw, which is that you don’t necessarily understand a problem fully if you haven’t explored it. This means you might miss an important related issue that will prevent your solution from working or could even cause newer, bigger problems.

It doesn’t need to take long, all you need to do is write down what the problem is, what it involves, what the potential consequences are and how it makes you or others feel.

3. Brainstorm On Your Own

The temptation tends to be to gather everyone together in a meeting room when there is a problem to be solved. Get a flipchart or a whiteboard marker and start brainstorming ideas, because the more people involved, the better, right?

Actually, studies have shown that individual brainstorming can be more effective, so why not focus on your own ideas first? You can use tactics like word associations or visual prompts to help your creative juices flow if you’re struggling to get started.

4. Be Decisive

Solving problems can be a struggle no matter how good your skills may be, especially if that problem is a particularly tricky one or where the potential consequences of making a wrong move are catastrophic. This can lead to paralysis and indecision, which in itself is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Using a decision matrix can be a good way to work through the options and systematically come up with the best one. Simply create a grid with rows for each of the solutions, columns for the important criteria they need to meet and then score each one between 1-5 to come up with the best way forward.

5. Use CATWOE For Analysis

When it comes to analyzing problems and potential solutions, there are lots of tactics and systems you can use to help you. So many, in fact, that you can struggle to work out which is the best one to choose.

Created to help with technical issues, CATWOE is one of the simplest to try out when looking for a solution to a problem. All you need to do is ask yourself the following questions:

  • Clients – Who are affected by the problem?
  • Actors – Who will be making the changes?
  • Transformation – What needs to happen?
  • Worldview – What else will be impacted?
  • Owner – Who is responsible for the issue and solution?
  • Environmental Constraints – What other factors might impact the solution?

Once you have worked your way through these, you will be a better place to understand how to proceed.

6. Use A Fishbone Diagram

Another effective tool for analyzing a problem is the fishbone diagram, which will help you to understand the cause and effects of an issue. Only by properly investigating these will you really understand how to solve it. Split the problem and its causes into the following categories:

  • Materials
  • People
  • Methods
  • Machines

Now that you’ve learned more about problem-solving, you should have a better idea of how enhanced your skills are and what kind of problem solver you are.

This might have led you to feel that maybe you don’t need to work on your techniques because you’re already systematic in your approach and you get the right results every time. Or you might have realized that you’ve been struggling for so long because you need to work on how you tackle problems that crop up, in which case you’ve hopefully found the tips useful.

One thing for certain is that we can’t avoid problems in life or at work, they’re just a natural part of our daily existence and it’s very difficult to get where you want to go in life without being good at solving them.

Think about job interviews in the past where you’ve been asked about when you faced a problem and how you dealt with it, don’t you want to have a really impressive answer to give them next time?

Why not start trying out some of these tips when you next come across an issue and see how much more smoothly the whole problem-solving process can be?

How Good Are Your Problem-Solving Skills Infographic



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