Knowing problem solving methods is important — and it is possibly the no. 1 skill every worker needs today.
This is not something new. In fact, it should come naturally to us. History shows that we are born to problem solvers.
Aristotle defined humans as Zoon Logikon, which is loosely translated as the rational animal, although rationality was hardly defined at that time.
And what better evidence is there that we are rational animals than our long history of interest in games, mysteries, and puzzles throughout the evolution of human civilisation.
Yet, despite millennia of experience, most workers today, especially fresh graduates, are accused of lacking problem-solving skills. What happened?
The importance of mastering problem solving methods
Securing your first job after graduation is usually celebrated as a life milestone.
But for many graduates, leaving university and joining the workforce is not a smooth transition.
Feelings of constant struggle, anxiety, exhaustion, confusion and disappointment dominated a report by the Harvard Business Review in 2019.
After all, work appears to be drastically different from the dream job they imagined.
Some companies merely throw new employees into the dep end, forcing them to learn on their own through trial and error. Others provide formal training but in the wrong manner.
Worse, the business world was confronted with a silent epidemic that very few were in fact prepared for. A staggering 62% of employees reported feeling the weight of burnout.
Anne Musiol, a career counsellor based in Dublin, shares with The Irish Times that one of the biggest issues is people struggling to cope working with a manager who may not offer clear instructions or guidance.
“If someone has poor management in that first job, it can really have an impact on their confidence or on their prospects,” she said.
“It can leave them floundering without anybody developing their career and development.”
This is just one example where knowing the best problem solving methods can help you find the next steps to take.
8 best problem solving methods that’ll help you deal with the most common difficult situations at work
1. Root cause analysis
Picture this: your boss comes into the room and questions why productivity has dropped in the last quarter.
As an employee, it’s easy to get nervous when you don’t have all the necessary information at your fingertips.
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a process that helps you understand the real causes behind a problem to learn why that problem arose in the first place.
While there are many ways to do an RCA, here’s how to do it in four steps:
- Analyse what you see happening and identify the precise symptoms.
- Collect and evaluate all aspects of the situation.
- Use an RCA analysis tool to discover the root causes.
- Recommend preventative action to ensure the problem never happens again. Develop a timeline and plan for implementing your solution.
Sometimes, we face difficult questions at work, especially about the specific ways of doing certain things in the office.
Certain procedures may contradict one another or you may have missed out on new updates to these procedures in a hectic workplace.
Or you could be dealing with bigger issues like determining the proper marketing strategy in the next quarter.
In these times, there’s no better chance than to gather a couple of your co-workers to brainstorm on a practical problem solving method. When doing this, remember to:
- Seek continuous feedback as you implement your action plan.
- Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board if your first plan fails. After all, the bigger the problem, the greater the solution.
3. SWOT analysis
The SWOT analysis method (short for strength, weakness, opportunities, and threat) is ideal if you are tasked to help your company overcome challenges and determine which new leads to pursue.
The main goal of a SWOT analysis is to help businesses become fully aware of the factors involved in making a business decision.
Albert Humphrey of the Stanford Research Institute created this method in the 1960s during a study conducted to identify why corporate planning consistently failed.
When doing a SWOT analysis, take note of the following:
- Start with external factors.
- Convert strengths and weaknesses into opportunities.
- Threats are not within your control.
- Use real data.
4. Decision matrix
What happens when you are faced with multiple solutions? The dilemma can be unnerving as most options point towards the same goal — solving the problem.
A decision matrix, also known as a grid analysis or decision grid, is a systematic tool used to evaluate multiple options against a set of criteria in order to make a well-informed decision.
It organises and quantifies various factors or criteria relevant to a decision-making process. They usually contain:
- Multiple choices for you to consider
- Specific factors crucial to making a decision
- A scoring system that assigns weights or scores to each factor based on importance
- A grid-like structure where scores or ratings are entered for each option
By calculating the scores, you will see which solution is the most important.
5. Pareto analysis
Imagine yourself as a newly appointed department head, bubbling with ideas and eager to make a lasting impact.
After observing the current state of business operations, you determine your first goal is to increase company efficiency.
But where and how should you start?
Like an RCA, the Pareto Analysis, based on the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), is a technique used to prioritise and focus on the most significant factors contributing to a problem or a situation.
According to the Pareto principle, a small number of contributing factors (roughly 20%) drive most (around 80%) of an observable outcome.
For example, 80% of complaints usually originate from 20% of customers, and 80% of sales might be generated by 20% of clients.
Here’s how you can put the Pareto principle into action at work:
- Identify the issue or area you want to focus on, such as customer complaints, product defects, or project delays.
- Collect relevant data related to the problem.
- Categorise the data into different factors or categories.
- Determine the frequency of each category.
- Rank the categories based on their frequency or impact from highest to lowest.
- Focus on the top 20% of categories contributing to 80% of the problem.
- Concentrate efforts on addressing or improving the vital few categories.
- Continuously monitor the impact of your actions.
6. Mind mapping
When your thoughts are cluttered, it can be hard to think.
Mind maps are a fun exercise where you write down your thoughts and group them into topics — perfect for those brainstorming for the next best content idea or mapping out the timeline of an important project.
Startup founders are known to use mind maps to identify whether their idea or product meets market demands.
When creating mind maps, consider these elements to make them effective:
- Start with a central topic or theme at the centre of your mind map.
- Use branches radiating from the central topic to represent main categories or subtopics.
- Arrange subtopics hierarchically, creating a structure that shows relationships between main ideas and their subcategories.
- Use keywords or short phrases rather than lengthy sentences.
7. The Kaizen method
Are you feeling like you are in a rut at work? Perhaps you are experiencing a severe lack of motivation.
The workplace is an environment that requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances. To stay competitive, consider embracing Kaizen.
Kaizen is a Japanese term that means “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” The philosophy emphasises making small, incremental changes over time to achieve significant improvements.
Here’s how you can implement this mindset at work:
- Embrace a culture of continuous improvement.
- Identify areas to improve by analysing the way you work.
- Make small, incremental changes.
- Measure your results.
- Repeat the process.
For example, a Kaizen event could be held to improve the onboarding process for new employees. The team could identify areas for improvement, such as simplifying the process or providing more training, and make small changes to achieve their goal.
8. Transparent communication
Sometimes, the simplest solutions are often the best problem solving methods.
Take transparent communication, for example, where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed. This is especially useful to tackle conflicts about productivity at work.
“I’ve seen one too many times how difficult it is to get to the root of the matter in a timely manner when people do not speak up,” shares Glenn Llopis, a Cuban-American entrepreneur, bestselling author, speaker and senior advisor to Fortune 500 companies, on Forbes.
“Effective communication towards problem solving happens because of a leader’s ability to facilitate an open dialogue between people who trust her intentions and feel that they are in a safe environment to share why they believe the problem happened as well as specific solutions.”
Here’s what you can do to nurture transparent communication at work:
- Nurture relationships with your peers and bosses
- Show vulnerability
- Be open to feedback