What Are Problem-Solving Skills?

Definition & Examples of Problem-Solving Skills

Black female engineer working on industrial machine in a laboratory.
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Problem-solving skills help you determine why an issue is happening and how to resolve that issue.

Learn more about problem-solving skills and how they work.

What Are Problem-Solving Skills?

Problem-solving skills help you solve issues quickly and effectively. It's one of the key skills that employers seek in job applicants, as employees with these skills tend to be self-reliant. Problem-solving skills require quickly identifying the underlying issue and implementing a solution.

Problem-solving is considered a soft skill (a personal strength) rather than a hard skill that's learned through education or training. You can improve your problem-solving skills by familiarizing yourself with common issues in your industry and learning from more experienced employees.

How Problem-Solving Skills Work

Problem-solving starts with identifying the issue. For example, a teacher might need to figure out how to improve student performance on a writing proficiency test. To do that, the teacher will review the writing tests looking for areas of improvement. They might see that students can construct simple sentences, but they're struggling with writing paragraphs and organizing those paragraphs into an essay.

To solve the problem, the teacher would work with students on how and when to write compound sentences, how to write paragraphs, and ways to organize an essay.

An illustration of the five steps of problem-solving, as found in the article.
Theresa Chiechi / The Balance

There are five steps typically used in problem-solving.

1. Analyze Contributing Factors

To solve a problem, you must find out what caused it. This requires you to gather and evaluate data, isolate possible contributing circumstances, and pinpoint what needs to be addressed for a resolution.

To do this, you'll use skills like:

  • Data gathering
  • Data analysis
  • Fact-finding
  • Historical analysis

2. Generate Interventions

Once you’ve determined the cause, brainstorm possible solutions. Sometimes this involves teamwork since two (or more) minds are often better than one. A single strategy is rarely the obvious route to solving a complex problem; devising a set of alternatives helps you cover your bases and reduces your risk of exposure should the first strategy you implement fail.

This involves skills like:

  • Brainstorming
  • Creative thinking
  • Prediction
  • Forecasting
  • Project design
  • Project planning

3. Evaluate Solutions

Depending on the nature of the problem and your chain of command, evaluating best solutions may be performed by assigned teams, team leads, or forwarded to corporate decision-makers. Whoever makes the decision must evaluate potential costs, required resources, and possible barriers to successful solution implementation.

This requires several skills, including:

  • Analysis
  • Discussion
  • Corroboration
  • Teamwork
  • Test development
  • Mediation
  • Prioritizing

4. Implement a Plan

Once a course of action has been decided, it must be implemented along with benchmarks that can quickly and accurately determine whether it’s working. Plan implementation also involves letting personnel know about changes in standard operating procedures.

This requires skills like:

  • Project management
  • Project implementation
  • Collaboration
  • Time management
  • Benchmark development

5. Assess the Solution's Effectiveness

Once a solution is implemented, the best problem-solvers have systems in place to evaluate if and how quickly it's working. This way, they know as soon as possible whether the issue has been resolved or whether they’ll have to change their response to the problem mid-stream.

This requires:

  • Communication
  • Data analysis
  • Surveys
  • Customer feedback
  • Follow-through
  • Troubleshooting

Here's an example of showing your problem-solving skills in a cover letter.

When I was first hired as a paralegal, I inherited a backlog of 25 sets of medical records that needed to be summarized, each of which was hundreds of pages long. At the same time, I had to help prepare for three major cases, and there weren’t enough hours in the day. After I explained the problem to my supervisor, she agreed to pay me to come in on Saturday mornings to focus on the backlog. I was able to eliminate the backlog in a month.

Highlighting Problem-Solving Skills

Since this is a skill that's important to most employers, put them front and center on your resume, cover letter, and in interviews.

If you're not sure what to include, look to previous roles—whether in academic, work, or volunteer settings—for examples of challenges you met and problems you solved. Highlight relevant examples in your cover letter and use bullet points in your resume to show how you solved a problem.

During interviews, be ready to describe situations you've encountered in previous roles, the processes you followed to address problems, the skills you applied, and the results of your actions. Potential employers are eager to hear a coherent narrative of the ways you've used problem-solving skills.

Interviewers may pose hypothetical problems for you to solve. Base your answers on the five steps and refer to similar problems you've resolved, if possible.

Here's another example of how to show your problem-solving skills in a cover letter:

When I joined the team at Great Graphics as Artistic Director, the designers had become uninspired because of a former director who attempted to micro-manage every step in the design process. I used weekly round-table discussions to solicit creative input and ensured that each designer was given full autonomy to do their best work. I also introduced monthly team-based competitions that helped build morale, spark new ideas, and improve collaboration.

Key Takeaways

  • Problem-solving skills help you determine why an issue is happening and how to resolve that issue.
  • It's one of the key skills that employers seek in job applicants.
  • Problem-solving starts with identifying the issue, coming up with solutions, implementing those solutions, and evaluating their effectiveness. 
  • Since this is a skill that's important to most employers, put them front and center on your resume, cover letter, and in interviews.