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How to improve your problem solving skills

improve your problem solving skills

Problem solving skills are in high demand. Here’s how to improve your problem solving skills and increase your chances of success in the job search and beyond.

When we talk about soft skills, problem solving is always up there at the top of the list of what employers are looking for. Problem-solving skills are skills that help you identify and solve problems (it’s pretty self-explanatory). These skills include, but are not limited to:

Listening
Critical thinking
Research
Creativity
Communication
Decision making

Problem solving skills are mainly considered soft skills, which means they are partially inherent but can also be learned and sharpened. Developing these skills won’t just help you in your career, it can make everything in your life better, including your relationships.

Here are some suggestions for how to improve your problem solving skills.

Read

Read books about problem solving like Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe and Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything by Charles Conn and Robert McLean.

But also read books that are not about problem solving but that are about critical thinking, new ways of thinking, or new ways of seeing the world. These might include Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, The Organized Mind, By Daniel J. Levitan, and Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows.

Look around and see what books about thinking interest you, and read them.

Practice seeing things from different angles

A smartphone is a communication tool. It’s also an information tool, a notetaking tool, an entertainment device, and more. For the store that sells phones and for the manufacturer it’s a revenue driver. For the people who make phones, and parts of phones, it’s an income generator. For some people a smartphone is a driver of addiction or anxiety. A smartphone is an expense, a necessity, and a symbol of modern times. It’s many thing seen through many lenses.

Now try this exercise with a shirt, a chair, a pen, a cat. How many uses and meanings can you come up with for these things? Here’s a video from Harvard University’s Chipstone Foundation for an example:

Learning to see things from different angles, or perspectives, can help you see problems from different angles, which can help you solve them more efficiently and effectively.

Shut up and listen

Listening is one key skill that will make or break your problem solving abilities. The best leaders and the most effective thinkers are always good listeners.

You can’t solve problems alone. To effectively solve problems we need to understand how the problems and their solutions affect others, not just ourselves. And we need to hear other people’s ideas and perspectives. Yours are not the only ideas and yours is not the only perspective, nor are they necessarily the “best.”

You’ll notice that most of these strategies are about seeing problems from different angles and new perspectives. Listening allows you to do that and develop the tools to take action based on what you have understood.

Learn to step back and think

After we listen to others and gather information, we need to think. Often we can’t see a solution to a problem because we are so deeply involved in it, and stepping back is the only way to see things clearly.

This is why quietly walking away from a problem is key to solving it. This can mean going for a walk or a run, to clear the mind and make room for solutions. It can, and often does mean, sleeping on it. While we sleep, we solve problems in our heads, which is why we often wake up with a whole new perspective we hadn’t even thought of the previous day. Stepping back can mean breathing and meditating.

Stepping back is a skill. This is why we say things like “stop and think before you speak” and “never send an email when you’re angry.”

It takes practice and patience to think and wait, rather than forge ahead and just do.

Brainstorm

Brainstorming is a skill. Many people think it has to be a group activity, but you can master it by yourself and it can still be incredibly useful. There are many different methods out there to try, like mind mapping, free writing, word association, step ladder, rapid ideation, star bursting…and many more.

All of these methods are essentially exercises for generating ideas and seeing things in different ways. They take practise because they require letting go, taking risks, and stepping outside of your comfort zone.

Brainstorming as a group is also a great and necessary skill for problem solving because it requires listening to others and working as a team, things the poorest problem solvers have trouble doing.

Familiarize yourself with the “5 Whys”

Sakichi Toyoda’s “5 Whys technique” is a problem solving tool you can read more about here.

When you’re facing a problem, ask yourself why five times, which is supposed to be the magic number that gets you to the root cause, which you then solve (ta da!). So, for example, you might ask:

  1. Why can’t a get a job?

Not focused enough on the job search.

2. Why am I not focused enough on the job search?

Because I get distracted by other things.

3. Why do I get distracted?

Attention is too divided.

4. Why is my attention so divided?

Have too much to do.

5. Why do I have too much to do?

(Root cause) Work, kids, meals, social life, work out, cleaning, etc.

Solution

Give something up or learn to better manage time.

Yes, the root cause is usually going to be something banal like do fewer things or manage your time better. Many things in life are pretty simple when you get down to it.

Practice this technique with your existing problems and you’ll see it helps you think critically, break things down and improve your problem solving skills.

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