Problem Solving Skills List and Examples
In nearly every career sector, problem solving is one of the key skills that employers seek in job applicants. It is hard to find a blue collar, administrative, managerial, or professional position that doesn't require problem solving skills of some kind. Considered a soft skill (a personal strength as opposed to a “hard skill” that is learned through education or training), an aptitude for creative and effective problem solving is nonetheless one of the most valued attributes employers seek in their job candidates.
How to Show You Have Problem Solving Skills
Your problem solving skills should be on display in your cover letter, resume, and application materials. Be prepared to discuss specific ways you used your problem solving skills during phone screens and interviews.
Look to previous roles - whether in academic, work, or volunteer settings - for examples of challenges you met and problems you solved while carrying out each function. You can highlight relevant examples in your cover letter. You can also frame bullet points in your resume to show off how you solved a problem.
During interviews, be ready to describe situations you encountered in previous roles, the processes you followed to address the problems, the skills you applied, and the results of your actions. Potential employers are eager to hear a coherent narrative of the specific ways you have used problem solving skills.
Interviewers may also provide an example of a potential problem and then ask you to outline the steps you should take to address it. To prepare, brainstorm issues that commonly arise in your field. For example, a cable television technician might be trying to resolve a customer problem with a weak signal.
A teacher might need to figure out how to improve the performance of her students on a writing proficiency test. A store manager might be trying to reduce theft of merchandise. A computer specialist might be looking for a way to speed up a slow program.
Problem Solving Steps and Skills
Now that you've brainstormed a list of potential problems, your next step is to think up effective solutions for these issues, noting the skills you will need to resolve them. Here are the steps most commonly used in problem solving, their associated skills, and examples of where they are utilized in different career sectors.
The five primary steps in problem solving are:
1. Analyzing the factors or causes contributing to the unwanted situation (required skills: Active Listening, Data Gathering, Data Analysis, Fact Finding, Historical Analysis, Causal Analysis, Process Analysis, Needs Identification)
Examples: Diagnosing Illnesses, Identifying the Causes for Social Problems, Interpreting Data to Determine the Scope of Problems, Pinpointing Behaviors Contributing to Marital Distress, Recognizing Invalid Research Models
2. Generating a set of alternative interventions to achieve your end goal (required skills: Brainstorming, Creative Thinking, Prediction, Forecasting, Project Design, Project Planning)
Examples: Brainstorming Solutions, Developing Treatment Plans, Devising and Testing Hypotheses
3. Evaluating the best solutions (required skills: Analysis, Discussion, Corroboration, Teamwork, Test Development, Mediation, Prioritizing) Examples: Evaluating Alternative Strategies for Reducing Stress, Proposing Diplomatic Solutions to Border Disputes, Selecting Employees to Layoff During a Business Downturn, Troubleshooting Computer Malfunctions
4. Implementing a plan (required skills: Project Management, Project Implementation, Collaboration, Time Management, Benchmark Development)
Examples: Anticipating Obstacles to Implementation, Implementing Solutions, Mediating Interpersonal Conflicts, Repairing Malfunctioning Machinery
5. Assessing the effectiveness of your interventions (required skills: Communications, Data Analysis, Surveys, Customer Feedback, Follow Through, Troubleshooting)
Examples: Surveying End-users, Comparing Production Figures, Evaluating YOY Sales Figures
Tips for Answering Interview Questions About Problem Solving
You don't have to provide a cookie-cutter answer. Employers are always eager for individuals who can "think outside of the box" and present new solutions, especially when old ones aren't working.
The most important thing is to demonstrate your problem solving skills in your answer. If the interviewer proposes a potential problem, share how you'd resolve it. As you explain your thought process, use the steps listed above (from analyzing the cause to assessing the effectiveness of your interventions). Or, share an example of a problem you solved in a previous role. Explain how and why you solved the issue.
Example Answers Demonstrating Problem Solving Skills
Here are a few examples of how job candidates in different professions might describe their problem solving skills:
“As a nurse practitioner, my primary responsibility is to use my problem solving skills to diagnose illnesses and development treatment plans. With each patient, I analyze their medical histories, their symptoms, and their potential exposures to different illnesses to determine if we can pin down a diagnosis immediately or to see, alternatively, if we need blood tests. I then develop a care plan and, if warranted, perform follow-up calls to check on the process of recovery.”
“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. However, at the same time, I had to help the attorney prepare for three major cases, and there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. After I explained the problem to my supervisor, she and the attorney agreed to pay me to come in on Saturday mornings to focus on the backlog – I was thus able to eliminate it in a month.”
“When I joined the team at Great Graphics as Artistic Director, the designers had become lackadaisical and 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 to build morale, spark exciting new ideas, and improve collaboration.”