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Self-Assessment • 20 min read
How Good Is Your Problem Solving?
Use a systematic approach..
By the Mind Tools Content Team
Good problem solving skills are fundamentally important if you're going to be successful in your career.
But problems are something that we don't particularly like.
They muscle their way into already packed schedules.
They force us to think about an uncertain future.
And they never seem to go away!
That's why, when faced with problems, most of us try to eliminate them as quickly as possible. But have you ever chosen the easiest or most obvious solution – and then realized that you have entirely missed a much better solution? Or have you found yourself fixing just the symptoms of a problem, only for the situation to get much worse?
To be an effective problem-solver, you need to be systematic and logical in your approach. This quiz helps you assess your current approach to problem solving. By improving this, you'll make better overall decisions. And as you increase your confidence with solving problems, you'll be less likely to rush to the first solution – which may not necessarily be the best one.
Once you've completed the quiz, we'll direct you to tools and resources that can help you make the most of your problem-solving skills.
How Good Are You at Solving Problems?
For each statement, click the button in the column that best describes you. Please answer questions as you actually are (rather than how you think you should be), and don't worry if some questions seem to score in the 'wrong direction'. When you are finished, please click the 'Calculate My Total' button at the bottom of the test.
Answering these questions should have helped you recognize the key steps associated with effective problem solving.
This quiz is based on Dr Min Basadur's Simplexity Thinking problem-solving model. This eight-step process follows the circular pattern shown below, within which current problems are solved and new problems are identified on an ongoing basis. This assessment has not been validated and is intended for illustrative purposes only.
Below, we outline the tools and strategies you can use for each stage of the problem-solving process. Enjoy exploring these stages!
Step 1: Find the Problem (Questions 7, 12)
Some problems are very obvious, however others are not so easily identified. As part of an effective problem-solving process, you need to look actively for problems – even when things seem to be running fine. Proactive problem solving helps you avoid emergencies and allows you to be calm and in control when issues arise.
These techniques can help you do this:
PEST Analysis helps you pick up changes to your environment that you should be paying attention to. Make sure too that you're watching changes in customer needs and market dynamics, and that you're monitoring trends that are relevant to your industry.
Risk Analysis helps you identify significant business risks.
Failure Modes and Effects Analysis helps you identify possible points of failure in your business process, so that you can fix these before problems arise.
After Action Reviews help you scan recent performance to identify things that can be done better in the future.
Where you have several problems to solve, our articles on Prioritization and Pareto Analysis help you think about which ones you should focus on first.
Step 2: Find the Facts (Questions 10, 14)
After identifying a potential problem, you need information. What factors contribute to the problem? Who is involved with it? What solutions have been tried before? What do others think about the problem?
If you move forward to find a solution too quickly, you risk relying on imperfect information that's based on assumptions and limited perspectives, so make sure that you research the problem thoroughly.
Step 3: Define the Problem (Questions 3, 9)
Now that you understand the problem, define it clearly and completely. Writing a clear problem definition forces you to establish specific boundaries for the problem. This keeps the scope from growing too large, and it helps you stay focused on the main issues.
A great tool to use at this stage is CATWOE . With this process, you analyze potential problems by looking at them from six perspectives, those of its Customers; Actors (people within the organization); the Transformation, or business process; the World-view, or top-down view of what's going on; the Owner; and the wider organizational Environment. By looking at a situation from these perspectives, you can open your mind and come to a much sharper and more comprehensive definition of the problem.
Cause and Effect Analysis is another good tool to use here, as it helps you think about the many different factors that can contribute to a problem. This helps you separate the symptoms of a problem from its fundamental causes.
Step 4: Find Ideas (Questions 4, 13)
With a clear problem definition, start generating ideas for a solution. The key here is to be flexible in the way you approach a problem. You want to be able to see it from as many perspectives as possible. Looking for patterns or common elements in different parts of the problem can sometimes help. You can also use metaphors and analogies to help analyze the problem, discover similarities to other issues, and think of solutions based on those similarities.
Traditional brainstorming and reverse brainstorming are very useful here. By taking the time to generate a range of creative solutions to the problem, you'll significantly increase the likelihood that you'll find the best possible solution, not just a semi-adequate one. Where appropriate, involve people with different viewpoints to expand the volume of ideas generated.
Tip: Don't evaluate your ideas until step 5. If you do, this will limit your creativity at too early a stage.
Step 5: Select and Evaluate (Questions 6, 15)
After finding ideas, you'll have many options that must be evaluated. It's tempting at this stage to charge in and start discarding ideas immediately. However, if you do this without first determining the criteria for a good solution, you risk rejecting an alternative that has real potential.
Decide what elements are needed for a realistic and practical solution, and think about the criteria you'll use to choose between potential solutions.
Paired Comparison Analysis , Decision Matrix Analysis and Risk Analysis are useful techniques here, as are many of the specialist resources available within our Decision-Making section . Enjoy exploring these!
Step 6: Plan (Questions 1, 16)
You might think that choosing a solution is the end of a problem-solving process. In fact, it's simply the start of the next phase in problem solving: implementation. This involves lots of planning and preparation. If you haven't already developed a full Risk Analysis in the evaluation phase, do so now. It's important to know what to be prepared for as you begin to roll out your proposed solution.
The type of planning that you need to do depends on the size of the implementation project that you need to set up. For small projects, all you'll often need are Action Plans that outline who will do what, when, and how. Larger projects need more sophisticated approaches – you'll find out more about these in the article What is Project Management? And for projects that affect many other people, you'll need to think about Change Management as well.
Here, it can be useful to conduct an Impact Analysis to help you identify potential resistance as well as alert you to problems you may not have anticipated. Force Field Analysis will also help you uncover the various pressures for and against your proposed solution. Once you've done the detailed planning, it can also be useful at this stage to make a final Go/No-Go Decision , making sure that it's actually worth going ahead with the selected option.
Step 7: Sell the Idea (Questions 5, 8)
As part of the planning process, you must convince other stakeholders that your solution is the best one. You'll likely meet with resistance, so before you try to “sell” your idea, make sure you've considered all the consequences.
As you begin communicating your plan, listen to what people say, and make changes as necessary. The better the overall solution meets everyone's needs, the greater its positive impact will be! For more tips on selling your idea, read our article on Creating a Value Proposition and use our Sell Your Idea Skillbook.
Step 8: Act (Questions 2, 11)
Finally, once you've convinced your key stakeholders that your proposed solution is worth running with, you can move on to the implementation stage. This is the exciting and rewarding part of problem solving, which makes the whole process seem worthwhile.
This action stage is an end, but it's also a beginning: once you've completed your implementation, it's time to move into the next cycle of problem solving by returning to the scanning stage. By doing this, you'll continue improving your organization as you move into the future.
Problem solving is an exceptionally important workplace skill.
Being a competent and confident problem solver will create many opportunities for you. By using a well-developed model like Simplexity Thinking for solving problems, you can approach the process systematically, and be comfortable that the decisions you make are solid.
Given the unpredictable nature of problems, it's very reassuring to know that, by following a structured plan, you've done everything you can to resolve the problem to the best of your ability.
This assessment has not been validated and is intended for illustrative purposes only. It is just one of many Mind Tool quizzes that can help you to evaluate your abilities in a wide range of important career skills.
If you want to reproduce this quiz, you can purchase downloadable copies in our Store .
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How to assess problem-solving skills
Human beings have been fascinated and motivated by problem-solving for as long as time. Let’s start with the classic ancient legend of Oedipus. The Sphinx aggressively addressed anyone who dared to enter Thebes by posing a riddle. If the traveler failed to answer the riddle correctly, the result was death. However, the Sphinx would be destroyed when the answer was finally correct.
Alas, along came Oedipus. He answered correctly. He unlocked this complex riddle and killed the Sphinx.
However, rationality was hardly defined at that time. Today, though, most people assume that it simply takes raw intelligence to be a great problem solver. However, it’s not the only crucial element.
Introduction to key problem-solving skills
You’ve surely noticed that many of the skills listed in the problem-solving process are repeated. This is because having these abilities and talents are so crucial to the entire course of getting a problem solved. Let’s look at some key problem-solving skills that are essential in the workplace.
Communication, listening, and customer service skills
In all the stages of problem-solving, you need to listen and engage to understand what the problem is and come to a conclusion as to what the solution may be. Another challenge is being able to communicate effectively so that people understand what you’re saying. It further rolls into interpersonal communication and customer service skills, which really are all about listening and responding appropriately.
Data analysis, research, and topic understanding skills
To produce the best solutions, employees must be able to understand the problem thoroughly. This is possible when the workforce studies the topic and the process correctly. In the workplace, this knowledge comes from years of relevant experience.
Dependability, believability, trustworthiness, and follow-through
To make change happen and take the following steps towards problem-solving, the qualities of dependability, trustworthiness, and diligence are a must. For example, if a person is known for not keeping their word, laziness, and committing blunders, that is not someone you’ll depend on when they provide you with a solution, will you?
Leadership, team-building, and decision-making
A true leader can learn and grow from the problems that arise in their jobs and utilize each challenge to hone their leadership skills. Problem-solving is an important skill for leaders who want to eliminate challenges that can otherwise hinder their people’s or their business’ growth. Let’s take a look at some statistics that prove just how important these skills are:
A Harvard Business Review study states that of all the skills that influence a leader’s success, problem-solving ranked third out of 16.
According to a survey by Goremotely.net, only 10% of CEOs are leaders who guide staff by example .
Another study at Havard Business Review found a direct link between teambuilding as a social activity and employee motivation.
Are you looking for a holistic way to develop leaders in your workplace?
Numerous skills and attributes define a successful one from a rookie when it comes to leaders. Our leadership development plan (with examples!) can help HR leaders identify potential leaders that are in sync with your company’s future goals.
Why is problem solving important in the workplace?
As a business leader, when too much of your time is spent managing escalations, the lack of problem-solving skills may hurt your business. While you may be hiring talented and capable employees and paying them well, it is only when you harness their full potential and translate that into business value that it is considered a successful hire.
The impact of continuing with poor problem-solving skills may show up in your organization as operational inefficiencies that may also manifest in product quality issues, defects, re-work and non-conformance to design specifications. When the product is defective, or the service is not up to the mark, it directly affects your customer’s experience and consequently reflects on the company’s profile.
At times, poor problem-solving skills could lead to missed market opportunities, slow time to market, customer dissatisfaction, regulatory compliance issues, and declining employee morale.
Problem-solving skills are important for individual business leaders as well. Suppose you’re busy responding to frequent incidents that have the same variables. In that case, this prevents you from focusing your time and effort on improving the future success of business outcomes.
Proven methods to assess and improve problem-solving skills
Pre-employment problem-solving skill assessment .
Recent research indicates that up to 85% of resumes contain misleading statements. Similarly, interviews are subjective and ultimately serve as poor predictors of job performance .
To provide a reliable and objective means of gathering job-related information on candidates, you must validate and develop pre-employment problem-solving assessments. You can further use the data from pre-employment tests to make informed and defensible hiring decisions.
Depending on the job profile, below are examples of pre-employment problem-solving assessment tests:
Personality tests: The rise of personality testing in the 20th century was an endeavor to maximize employee potential. Personality tests help to identify workplace patterns, relevant characteristics, and traits, and to assess how people may respond to different situations.
Examples of personality tests include the Big five personality traits test and Mercer | Mettl’s Dark Personality Inventory .
Cognitive ability test: A pre-employment aptitude test assesses individuals’ abilities such as critical thinking, verbal reasoning, numerical ability, problem-solving, decision-making, etc., which are indicators of a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ). The test results provide data about on-the-job performance. It also assesses current and potential employees for different job levels.
Criteria Cognitive Aptitude test , McQuaig Mental Agility Test , and Hogan Business Reasoning Inventory are commonly used cognitive ability assessment tests.
Convergent and divergent thinking methods
American psychologist JP Guilford coined the terms “convergent thinking” and “divergent thinking” in the 1950s.
Convergent thinking involves starting with pieces of information and then converging around a solution. An example would be determining the correct answer to a multiple-choice question.
The nature of the question does not demand creativity but rather inherently encourages a person to consider the veracity of each answer provided before selecting the single correct one.
Divergent thinking, on the other hand, starts with a prompt that encourages people to think critically, diverging towards distinct answers. An example of divergent thinking would be asking open-ended questions.
Here’s an example of what convergent thinking and a divergent problem-solving model would look like.
The 5 whys method , developed by Sakichi Toyoda, is part of the Toyota production system. In this method, when you come across a problem, you analyze the root cause by asking “Why?” five times. By recognizing the countermeasure, you can prevent the problem from recurring. Here’s an example of the 5 whys method.
This method is specifically useful when you have a recurring problem that reoccurs despite repeated actions to address it. It indicates that you are treating the symptoms of the problem and not the actual problem itself.
While brainstorming is about the team coming together to try to find answers, starbursting flips it over and asks everyone to think of questions instead. Here’s an example of the starbursting method.
The idea of this method is to go and expand from here, layering more and more questions until you’ve covered every eventuality of the problem.
Use of data analysis to measure improvement in problem-solving skills for your organization
Problem-solving and data analytics are often used together. Supporting data is very handy whenever a particular problem occurs. By using data analytics, you can find the supporting data and analyze it to use for solving a specific problem.
However, we must emphasize that the data you’re using to solve the problem is accurate and complete. Otherwise, misleading data may take you off track of the problem at hand or even make it appear more complex than it is. Moreover, as you gain knowledge about the current problem, it further eases the way to solve it.
Let’s dig deeper into the top 3 reasons data analytics is important in problem-solving.
1. Uncover hidden details
Modern data analytics tools have numerous features that let you analyze the given data thoroughly and find hidden or repeating trends without needing any extra human effort. These automated tools are great at extracting the depths of data, going back way into the past.
2. Automated models
Automation is the future. Businesses don’t have enough time or the budget to encourage manual workforces to go through loads of data to solve business problems. Instead, the tools can collect, combine, clean, and transform the relevant data all by themselves and finally use it to predict the solutions.
3. Explore similar problems
When you use a data analytics approach to solve problems, you can collect all the data available and store it. It can assist you when you find yourself in similar problems, providing references for how such issues were tackled in the past.
If you’re looking for ways to help develop problem-solving skills in the workplace and want to build a team of employees who can solve their own problems, contact us to learn how we can help you achieve it.
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