What Is Problem Solving?

All About This Essential Soft Skill

Colleagues trying to solve a problem
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Problem solving is an essential soft skill. It is the ability to recognize difficulties or complications, identify possible solutions, implement them, and finally follow up to make sure they were successful. People who work in some careers are required to be particularly strong problem solvers, but employers value workers with this skill regardless of their occupation.

How to Recognize That a Problem Exists

Problem solvers immediately realize when something has gone wrong. The best of the best can anticipate a complication before it even exists. To notice that something is amiss requires a keen sense of what is going on around you. For example, only when you know what sales are supposed to be, can you notice if they suddenly drop. Without being aware of typical absentee levels, you won't recognize a spike in worker call-outs. The sooner you realize there is a problem, the faster you can respond to it.

When you first detect a problem, begin to analyze it. Assess its significance and how harmful it threatens to be. For example, go back to the issue of employee call-outs. Does it seem to be something temporary, perhaps caused by the flu going around the office, or have you noticed a steady rise in absenteeism over several weeks? Could there be other reasons workers are calling out?

After your analysis, decide how quickly you will need to address the situation to keep it from becoming a more serious threat. Should other problems be a priority over this one or should this situation be dealt with immediately? Not every dilemma can be resolved—you will have to recognize when something falls into the category of "unfixable" so that you can let it go and move onto matters that you can control.

Coming Up With, Evaluating, and Implementing Solutions

Once you have determined that it is necessary to solve the problem at hand, your task is to come up with possible solutions. Looking at how you've successfully solved similar problems in the past can help you come up with a plan. There's no need to start from scratch when you can draw on experience. If this is an entirely new challenge—something with which you've never dealt before—don't be afraid to ask for suggestions from colleagues who may have had to solve a similar problem. Since every situation is different, it wouldn't hurt to come up with some alternative solutions as well.

Use your critical thinking skills to evaluate each of your options to decide which one will have the best results. Next, implement your chosen solution. There's still one more step. Follow up to see if your plan worked. If it didn't, figure out why and then try one of the alternatives.

Careers That Require Problem Solving Skills

If you have exceptional problem solving skills, these are some careers that will take full advantage of your expertise:

  • Chief ExecutiveChief executives direct all the activities of the companies and organizations that employ them. They devise strategies and create policies to help them meet these entities' goals.
  • JudgeJudges preside over trials and hearings, making sure they are handled fairly under the law.
  • PsychologistPsychologists diagnose mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders in their patients and then decide how to treat them.
  • MathematicianMathematicians use their knowledge of advanced mathematical principles to solve real-world problems.
  • Actuary: Actuaries evaluate the probability of specific events occurring to help their employers minimize the associated costs.
  • Operations Research AnalystOperation research analysts use their knowledge of mathematical and analytical methods to solve problems for companies and organizations.
  • Agricultural EngineerAgricultural engineers use mathematical and scientific principles to solve problems related to farming.
  • Biomedical EngineerBiomedical engineers analyze and then decide how to solve problems having to do with biology and medicine.
  • Environmental EngineerEnvironmental engineers use their knowledge of soil science, chemistry, and biology to repair the environment.
  • Biochemist or BiophysicistBiochemists and biophysicists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment, applying what they learn to resolve complex scientific challenges.
  • Special AgentsSpecial agents, also known as detectives, collect facts and evidence to help them solve crimes.
  • AnthropologistsAnthropologists gather information about human beings' origin, development, and behavior.
  • Management AnalystManagement analysts help companies fix difficulties that may cause them to operate less effectively and efficiently than they should.
  • ArchitectArchitects design buildings to meet the needs of the people who use them. They also make sure these structures are safe and aesthetically pleasing.
  • AttorneyAttorneys, also known as lawyers, represent clients who are involved in criminal and civil legal cases.
  • DoctorsDoctors first diagnose illnesses and diseases, and then decide how to treat them.
  • School PrincipalPrincipals manage elementary, middle, and high schools, making sure students and faculty reach educational goals.
  • DentistDentists diagnose and then treat diseases and other problems with their patients' teeth and mouths.
  • Athletic CoachAthletic coaches help athletes improve their performances.
  • Marriage and Family TherapistMarriage and family therapists provide therapy to couples, families, and individuals who have difficulties in their relationships.
  • Medical ScientistMedical scientists conduct research to determine the causes of diseases and develop ways to prevent and treat them.
  • Software DeveloperSoftware developers create applications that make computers, smartphones, video game systems, and other electronic devices useful.
  • Computer and Information Systems ManagerComputer and information systems managers direct entities' computer-related activities.
  • NannyNannies care for children, usually in families' homes. They are often responsible for solving any problems that occur while the children are in their care.