Problem Solving Skills: Definition, Steps, 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.
What Are Problem-Solving Skills?
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.
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
In order to solve a problem, you must first figure out what caused it. This requires that you gather and evaluate data, isolate possible contributing circumstances, and pinpoint the chief causal factors that need to be addressed in order to resolve the problem.
- 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
Once you’ve determined what is causing a problem, it’s time to come up with possible alternative solutions. Sometimes this involves teamwork, since two (or more) minds are often better than one. It’s rare that a single strategy is the obvious route to solving a complex problem; devising a set of alternatives helps you to cover your bases and reduce your risk exposure should the first strategy you implement fail.
- Creative Thinking
- Project Design
- Project Planning
Examples: Brainstorming Solutions, Developing Treatment Plans, Devising and Testing Hypotheses
3. Evaluating the best solutions
Depending upon the nature of the problem and your chain of command, evaluating the best solutions may be performed by assigned teams, team leads, or forwarded upward to major corporate decision makers. Whoever makes the decision must evaluate potential costs, required resources, and possible barriers to successful solution implementation.
- Test Development
Examples: Evaluating Alternative Strategies for Reducing Stress, Proposing Diplomatic Solutions to Border Disputes, Selecting Employees to Lay Off During a Business Downturn, Troubleshooting Computer Malfunctions
4. Implementing a plan
Once a course of action has been decided upon, it must be implemented, along with benchmarks that can quickly and accurately determine whether it’s working to solve a problem. Plan implementation also typically involves alerting personnel to changes in their standard operating procedures (SOPs).
- Project Management
- Project Implementation
- Time Management
- Benchmark Development
Examples: Anticipating Obstacles to Implementation, Implementing Solutions, Mediating Interpersonal Conflicts, Repairing Malfunctioning Machinery
5. Assessing the effectiveness of your interventions
Once a solution is implemented, the best problem-solvers have systems in place to ascertain if and how quickly it’s working. This way, they know as soon as possible whether the issue has been resolved or, alternatively, whether they’ll have to change their response to the problem mid-stream.
- Data Analysis
- Customer Feedback
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.
Sample Interview 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 develop 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.
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.
More Problem-Solving Skills
The list below includes common strategies involved in problem-solving. These skills can be useful to include in your answer to an interview question related to problem-solving.
- Active Listening
- Anticipating Obstacles to Implementation
- Assessing the Effectiveness of Interventions
- Brainstorming Solutions
- Determining Factors Impacting Stress
- Developing Treatment Plans
- Devising a Classroom Management Plan to Address Student Misbehavior
- Devising Hypotheses
- Diagnosing Illnesses
- Drawing Consensus around a Set of Solutions
- Evaluating Alternative Strategies for Reducing Stress
- Finding Middle Ground
- Flexibility to Try New Approaches
- Gathering Data
- Identifying the Causes for Social Problems
- Identifying the Interests of all Parties
- Implementing Solutions
- Interpreting Data to Determine the Scope of Problems
- Mediating Interpersonal Conflicts
- Pinpointing Behaviors Contributing to Marital Distress
- Proposing Diplomatic Solutions to Border Disputes
- Recognizing Invalid Research Models
- Recommending Ways to Improve Communication in Relationships
- Repairing Malfunctioning Machinery
- Resolving a Customer Complaint
- Restructuring a Budget after a Revenue Shortfall
- Selecting Employees to LayOff During a Business Downturn
- Testing Hypotheses
- Troubleshooting Computer Malfunctions
- Validating Data to Correctly Identify Problems
How to Make Your Skills Stand Out
Highlight Your Skills in Your Resume: 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.
Mention Relevant Skills in Your Cover Letter: 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.
Prepare to describe how you solve problems: 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