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Why Problem-Solving Skills Are Essential for Leaders in Any Industry

Business man leading team in problem-solving exercise with white board

  • 17 Jan 2023

Any organization offering a product or service is in the business of solving problems.

Whether providing medical care to address health issues or quick convenience to those hungry for dinner, a business’s purpose is to satisfy customer needs .

In addition to solving customers’ problems, you’ll undoubtedly encounter challenges within your organization as it evolves to meet customer needs. You’re likely to experience growing pains in the form of missed targets, unattained goals, and team disagreements.

Yet, the ubiquity of problems doesn’t have to be discouraging; with the right frameworks and tools, you can build the skills to solve consumers' and your organization’s most challenging issues.

Here’s a primer on problem-solving in business, why it’s important, the skills you need, and how to build them.

Access your free e-book today.

What Is Problem-Solving in Business?

Problem-solving is the process of systematically removing barriers that prevent you or others from reaching goals.

Your business removes obstacles in customers’ lives through its products or services, just as you can remove obstacles that keep your team from achieving business goals.

Design Thinking

Design thinking , as described by Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar in the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , is a human-centered , solutions-based approach to problem-solving and innovation. Originally created for product design, design thinking’s use case has evolved . It’s now used to solve internal business problems, too.

The design thinking process has four stages :

4 Stages of Design Thinking

  • Clarify: Clarify a problem through research and feedback from those impacted.
  • Ideate: Armed with new insights, generate as many solutions as possible.
  • Develop: Combine and cull your ideas into a short list of viable, feasible, and desirable options before building prototypes (if making physical products) and creating a plan of action (if solving an intangible problem).
  • Implement: Execute the strongest idea, ensuring clear communication with all stakeholders about its potential value and deliberate reasoning.

Using this framework, you can generate innovative ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced otherwise.

Creative Problem-Solving

Another, less structured approach to challenges is creative problem-solving , which employs a series of exercises to explore open-ended solutions and develop new perspectives. This is especially useful when a problem’s root cause has yet to be defined.

You can use creative problem-solving tools in design thinking’s “ideate” stage, which include:

  • Brainstorming: Instruct everyone to develop as many ideas as possible in an allotted time frame without passing judgment.
  • Divergent thinking exercises: Rather than arriving at the same conclusion (convergent thinking), instruct everyone to come up with a unique idea for a given prompt (divergent thinking). This type of exercise helps avoid the tendency to agree with others’ ideas without considering alternatives.
  • Alternate worlds: Ask your team to consider how various personas would manage the problem. For instance, how would a pilot approach it? What about a young child? What about a seasoned engineer?

It can be tempting to fall back on how problems have been solved before, especially if they worked well. However, if you’re striving for innovation, relying on existing systems can stunt your company’s growth.

Related: How to Be a More Creative Problem-Solver at Work: 8 Tips

Why Is Problem-Solving Important for Leaders?

While obstacles’ specifics vary between industries, strong problem-solving skills are crucial for leaders in any field.

Whether building a new product or dealing with internal issues, you’re bound to come up against challenges. Having frameworks and tools at your disposal when they arise can turn issues into opportunities.

As a leader, it’s rarely your responsibility to solve a problem single-handedly, so it’s crucial to know how to empower employees to work together to find the best solution.

Your job is to guide them through each step of the framework and set the parameters and prompts within which they can be creative. Then, you can develop a list of ideas together, test the best ones, and implement the chosen solution.

Related: 5 Design Thinking Skills for Business Professionals

4 Problem-Solving Skills All Leaders Need

1. problem framing.

One key skill for any leader is framing problems in a way that makes sense for their organization. Problem framing is defined in Design Thinking and Innovation as determining the scope, context, and perspective of the problem you’re trying to solve.

“Before you begin to generate solutions for your problem, you must always think hard about how you’re going to frame that problem,” Datar says in the course.

For instance, imagine you work for a company that sells children’s sneakers, and sales have plummeted. When framing the problem, consider:

  • What is the children’s sneaker market like right now?
  • Should we improve the quality of our sneakers?
  • Should we assess all children’s footwear?
  • Is this a marketing issue for children’s sneakers specifically?
  • Is this a bigger issue that impacts how we should market or produce all footwear?

While there’s no one right way to frame a problem, how you do can impact the solutions you generate. It’s imperative to accurately frame problems to align with organizational priorities and ensure your team generates useful ideas for your firm.

To solve a problem, you need to empathize with those impacted by it. Empathy is the ability to understand others’ emotions and experiences. While many believe empathy is a fixed trait, it’s a skill you can strengthen through practice.

When confronted with a problem, consider whom it impacts. Returning to the children’s sneaker example, think of who’s affected:

  • Your organization’s employees, because sales are down
  • The customers who typically buy your sneakers
  • The children who typically wear your sneakers

Empathy is required to get to the problem’s root and consider each group’s perspective. Assuming someone’s perspective often isn’t accurate, so the best way to get that information is by collecting user feedback.

For instance, if you asked customers who typically buy your children’s sneakers why they’ve stopped, they could say, “A new brand of children’s sneakers came onto the market that have soles with more traction. I want my child to be as safe as possible, so I bought those instead.”

When someone shares their feelings and experiences, you have an opportunity to empathize with them. This can yield solutions to their problem that directly address its root and shows you care. In this case, you may design a new line of children’s sneakers with extremely grippy soles for added safety, knowing that’s what your customers care most about.

Related: 3 Effective Methods for Assessing Customer Needs

3. Breaking Cognitive Fixedness

Cognitive fixedness is a state of mind in which you examine situations through the lens of past experiences. This locks you into one mindset rather than allowing you to consider alternative possibilities.

For instance, your cognitive fixedness may make you think rubber is the only material for sneaker treads. What else could you use? Is there a grippier alternative you haven’t considered?

Problem-solving is all about overcoming cognitive fixedness. You not only need to foster this skill in yourself but among your team.

4. Creating a Psychologically Safe Environment

As a leader, it’s your job to create an environment conducive to problem-solving. In a psychologically safe environment, all team members feel comfortable bringing ideas to the table, which are likely influenced by their personal opinions and experiences.

If employees are penalized for “bad” ideas or chastised for questioning long-held procedures and systems, innovation has no place to take root.

By employing the design thinking framework and creative problem-solving exercises, you can foster a setting in which your team feels comfortable sharing ideas and new, innovative solutions can grow.

Design Thinking and Innovation | Uncover creative solutions to your business problems | Learn More

How to Build Problem-Solving Skills

The most obvious answer to how to build your problem-solving skills is perhaps the most intimidating: You must practice.

Again and again, you’ll encounter challenges, use creative problem-solving tools and design thinking frameworks, and assess results to learn what to do differently next time.

While most of your practice will occur within your organization, you can learn in a lower-stakes setting by taking an online course, such as Design Thinking and Innovation . Datar guides you through each tool and framework, presenting real-world business examples to help you envision how you would approach the same types of problems in your organization.

Are you interested in uncovering innovative solutions for your organization’s business problems? Explore Design Thinking and Innovation —one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses —to learn how to leverage proven frameworks and tools to solve challenges. Not sure which course is right for you? Download our free flowchart .

problem solving role definition

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What Are Problem-Solving Skills? (Definition, Examples, And How To List On A Resume)

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Find a Job You Really Want In

Summary. Problem-solving skills include analysis, creativity, prioritization, organization, and troubleshooting. To solve a problem, you need to use a variety of skills based on the needs of the situation.

Most jobs essentially boil down to identifying and solving problems consistently and effectively. That’s why employers value problem-solving skills in job candidates for just about every role.

We’ll cover problem-solving methods, ways to improve your problem-solving skills, and examples of showcasing your problem-solving skills during your job search .

Key Takeaways:

If you can show off your problem-solving skills on your resume , in your cover letter , and during a job interview, you’ll be one step closer to landing a job.

Companies rely on employees who can handle unexpected challenges, identify persistent issues, and offer workable solutions in a positive way.

It is important to improve problem solving skill because this is a skill that can be cultivated and nurtured so you can become better at dealing with problems over time.

What are problem solving skills (definition, examples, and how to list on a resume)

Types of Problem-Solving Skills

How to improve your problem-solving skills, example answers to problem-solving interview questions, how to show off problem-solving skills on a resume, example resume and cover letter with problem-solving skills, more about problem-solving skills, problem solving skills faqs.

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Problem-solving skills are skills that help you identify and solve problems effectively and efficiently . Your ability to solve problems is one of the main ways that hiring managers and recruiters assess candidates, as those with excellent problem-solving skills are more likely to autonomously carry out their responsibilities.

A true problem solver can look at a situation, find the cause of the problem (or causes, because there are often many issues at play), and then come up with a reasonable solution that effectively fixes the problem or at least remedies most of it.

The ability to solve problems is considered a soft skill , meaning that it’s more of a personality trait than a skill you’ve learned at school, on the job, or through technical training.

That being said, your proficiency with various hard skills will have a direct bearing on your ability to solve problems. For example, it doesn’t matter if you’re a great problem-solver; if you have no experience with astrophysics, you probably won’t be hired as a space station technician .

Problem-solving is considered a skill on its own, but it’s supported by many other skills that can help you be a better problem solver. These skills fall into a few different categories of problem-solving skills.

Problem recognition and analysis. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and discover what it is or what the root cause of it is.

You can’t begin to solve a problem unless you’re aware of it. Sometimes you’ll see the problem yourself and other times you’ll be told about the problem. Both methods of discovery are very important, but they can require some different skills. The following can be an important part of the process:

Active listening

Data analysis

Historical analysis

Communication

Create possible solutions. You know what the problem is, and you might even know the why of it, but then what? Your next step is the come up with some solutions.

Most of the time, the first solution you come up with won’t be the right one. Don’t fall victim to knee-jerk reactions; try some of the following methods to give you solution options.

Brainstorming

Forecasting

Decision-making

Topic knowledge/understanding

Process flow

Evaluation of solution options. Now that you have a lot of solution options, it’s time to weed through them and start casting some aside. There might be some ridiculous ones, bad ones, and ones you know could never be implemented. Throw them away and focus on the potentially winning ideas.

This step is probably the one where a true, natural problem solver will shine. They intuitively can put together mental scenarios and try out solutions to see their plusses and minuses. If you’re still working on your skill set — try listing the pros and cons on a sheet of paper.

Prioritizing

Evaluating and weighing

Solution implementation. This is your “take action” step. Once you’ve decided which way to go, it’s time to head down that path and see if you were right. This step takes a lot of people and management skills to make it work for you.

Dependability

Teambuilding

Troubleshooting

Follow-Through

Believability

Trustworthiness

Project management

Evaluation of the solution. Was it a good solution? Did your plan work or did it fail miserably? Sometimes the evaluation step takes a lot of work and review to accurately determine effectiveness. The following skills might be essential for a thorough evaluation.

Customer service

Feedback responses

Flexibility

You now have a ton of skills in front of you. Some of them you have naturally and some — not so much. If you want to solve a problem, and you want to be known for doing that well and consistently, then it’s time to sharpen those skills.

Develop industry knowledge. Whether it’s broad-based industry knowledge, on-the-job training , or very specific knowledge about a small sector — knowing all that you can and feeling very confident in your knowledge goes a long way to learning how to solve problems.

Be a part of a solution. Step up and become involved in the problem-solving process. Don’t lead — but follow. Watch an expert solve the problem and, if you pay attention, you’ll learn how to solve a problem, too. Pay attention to the steps and the skills that a person uses.

Practice solving problems. Do some role-playing with a mentor , a professor , co-workers, other students — just start throwing problems out there and coming up with solutions and then detail how those solutions may play out.

Go a step further, find some real-world problems and create your solutions, then find out what they did to solve the problem in actuality.

Identify your weaknesses. If you could easily point out a few of your weaknesses in the list of skills above, then those are the areas you need to focus on improving. How you do it is incredibly varied, so find a method that works for you.

Solve some problems — for real. If the opportunity arises, step in and use your problem-solving skills. You’ll never really know how good (or bad) you are at it until you fail.

That’s right, failing will teach you so much more than succeeding will. You’ll learn how to go back and readdress the problem, find out where you went wrong, learn more from listening even better. Failure will be your best teacher ; it might not make you feel good, but it’ll make you a better problem-solver in the long run.

Once you’ve impressed a hiring manager with top-notch problem-solving skills on your resume and cover letter , you’ll need to continue selling yourself as a problem-solver in the job interview.

There are three main ways that employers can assess your problem-solving skills during an interview:

By asking questions that relate to your past experiences solving problems

Posing hypothetical problems for you to solve

By administering problem-solving tests and exercises

The third method varies wildly depending on what job you’re applying for, so we won’t attempt to cover all the possible problem-solving tests and exercises that may be a part of your application process.

Luckily, interview questions focused on problem-solving are pretty well-known, and most can be answered using the STAR method . STAR stands for situation, task, action, result, and it’s a great way to organize your answers to behavioral interview questions .

Let’s take a look at how to answer some common interview questions built to assess your problem-solving capabilities:

At my current job as an operations analyst at XYZ Inc., my boss set a quarterly goal to cut contractor spending by 25% while maintaining the same level of production and moving more processes in-house. It turned out that achieving this goal required hiring an additional 6 full-time employees, which got stalled due to the pandemic. I suggested that we widen our net and hire remote employees after our initial applicant pool had no solid candidates. I ran the analysis on overhead costs and found that if even 4 of the 6 employees were remote, we’d save 16% annually compared to the contractors’ rates. In the end, all 6 employees we hired were fully remote, and we cut costs by 26% while production rose by a modest amount.
I try to step back and gather research as my first step. For instance, I had a client who needed a graphic designer to work with Crello, which I had never seen before, let alone used. After getting the project details straight, I began meticulously studying the program the YouTube tutorials, and the quick course Crello provides. I also reached out to coworkers who had worked on projects for this same client in the past. Once I felt comfortable with the software, I started work immediately. It was a slower process because I had to be more methodical in my approach, but by putting in some extra hours, I turned in the project ahead of schedule. The client was thrilled with my work and was shocked to hear me joke afterward that it was my first time using Crello.
As a digital marketer , website traffic and conversion rates are my ultimate metrics. However, I also track less visible metrics that can illuminate the story behind the results. For instance, using Google Analytics, I found that 78% of our referral traffic was coming from one affiliate, but that these referrals were only accounting for 5% of our conversions. Another affiliate, who only accounted for about 10% of our referral traffic, was responsible for upwards of 30% of our conversions. I investigated further and found that the second, more effective affiliate was essentially qualifying our leads for us before sending them our way, which made it easier for us to close. I figured out exactly how they were sending us better customers, and reached out to the first, more prolific but less effective affiliate with my understanding of the results. They were able to change their pages that were referring us traffic, and our conversions from that source tripled in just a month. It showed me the importance of digging below the “big picture” metrics to see the mechanics of how revenue was really being generated through digital marketing.

You can bring up your problem-solving skills in your resume summary statement , in your work experience , and under your education section , if you’re a recent graduate. The key is to include items on your resume that speak direclty to your ability to solve problems and generate results.

If you can, quantify your problem-solving accomplishments on your your resume . Hiring managers and recruiters are always more impressed with results that include numbers because they provide much-needed context.

This sample resume for a Customer Service Representative will give you an idea of how you can work problem solving into your resume.

Michelle Beattle 111 Millennial Parkway Chicago, IL 60007 (555) 987-6543 [email protected] Professional Summary Qualified Customer Services Representative with 3 years in a high-pressure customer service environment. Professional, personable, and a true problem solver. Work History ABC Store — Customer Service Representative 01/2015 — 12/2017 Managed in-person and phone relations with customers coming in to pick up purchases, return purchased products, helped find and order items not on store shelves, and explained details and care of merchandise. Became a key player in the customer service department and was promoted to team lead. XYZ Store — Customer Service Representative/Night Manager 01/2018 — 03/2020, released due to Covid-19 layoffs Worked as the night manager of the customer service department and filled in daytime hours when needed. Streamlined a process of moving customers to the right department through an app to ease the burden on the phone lines and reduce customer wait time by 50%. Was working on additional wait time problems when the Covid-19 pandemic caused our stores to close permanently. Education Chicago Tech 2014-2016 Earned an Associate’s Degree in Principles of Customer Care Skills Strong customer service skills Excellent customer complaint resolution Stock record management Order fulfillment New product information Cash register skills and proficiency Leader in problem solving initiatives

You can see how the resume gives you a chance to point out your problem-solving skills and to show where you used them a few times. Your cover letter is your chance to introduce yourself and list a few things that make you stand out from the crowd.

Michelle Beattle 111 Millennial Parkway Chicago, IL 60007 (555) 987-6543 [email protected] Dear Mary McDonald, I am writing in response to your ad on Zippia for a Customer Service Representative . Thank you for taking the time to consider me for this position. Many people believe that a job in customer service is simply listening to people complain all day. I see the job as much more than that. It’s an opportunity to help people solve problems, make their experience with your company more enjoyable, and turn them into life-long advocates of your brand. Through my years of experience and my educational background at Chicago Tech, where I earned an Associate’s Degree in the Principles of Customer Care, I have learned that the customers are the lifeline of the business and without good customer service representatives, a business will falter. I see it as my mission to make each and every customer I come in contact with a fan. I have more than five years of experience in the Customer Services industry and had advanced my role at my last job to Night Manager. I am eager to again prove myself as a hard worker, a dedicated people person, and a problem solver that can be relied upon. I have built a professional reputation as an employee that respects all other employees and customers, as a manager who gets the job done and finds solutions when necessary, and a worker who dives in to learn all she can about the business. Most of my customers have been very satisfied with my resolution ideas and have returned to do business with us again. I believe my expertise would make me a great match for LMNO Store. I have enclosed my resume for your review, and I would appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to further discuss my qualifications. Thank you again for your time and consideration. Sincerely, Michelle Beattle

You’ve no doubt noticed that many of the skills listed in the problem-solving process are repeated. This is because having these abilities or talents is so important to the entire course of getting a problem solved.

In fact, they’re worthy of a little more attention. Many of them are similar, so we’ll pull them together and discuss how they’re important and how they work together.

Communication, active listening, and customer service skills. No matter where you are in the process of problem-solving, you need to be able to show that you’re listening and engaged and really hearing what the problem is or what a solution may be.

Obviously, the other part of this is being able to communicate effectively so people understand what you’re saying without confusion. Rolled into this are customer service skills , which really are all about listening and responding appropriately — it’s the ultimate in interpersonal communications.

Analysis (data and historical), research, and topic knowledge/understanding. This is how you intellectually grasp the issue and approach it. This can come from studying the topic and the process or it can come from knowledge you’ve gained after years in the business. But the best solutions come from people who thoroughly understand the problem.

Creativity, brainstorming, troubleshooting, and flexibility. All of you creative thinkers will like this area because it’s when your brain is at its best.

Coming up with ideas, collaborating with others, leaping over hurdles, and then being able to change courses immediately, if need be, are all essential. If you’re not creative by nature, then having a team of diverse thinkers can help you in this area.

Dependability, believability, trustworthiness, and follow-through. Think about it, these are all traits a person needs to have to make change happen and to make you comfortable taking that next step with them. Someone who is shifty and shady and never follows through, well, you’re simply not going to do what they ask, are you?

Leadership, teambuilding, decision-making, and project management. These are the skills that someone who is in charge is brimming with. These are the leaders you enjoy working for because you know they’re doing what they can to keep everything in working order. These skills can be learned but they’re often innate.

Prioritizing, prediction, forecasting, evaluating and weighing, and process flow. If you love flow charts, data analysis, prediction modeling, and all of that part of the equation, then you might have some great problem-solving abilities.

These are all great skills because they can help you weed out bad ideas, see flaws, and save massive amounts of time in trial and error.

What is a good example of problem-solving skills?

Good examples of porblem-solving skills include research, analysis, creativity, communciation, and decision-making. Each of these skills build off one another to contribute to the problem solving process. Research and analysis allow you to identify a problem.

Creativity and analysis help you consider different solutions. Meanwhile, communication and decision-making are key to working with others to solve a problem on a large scale.

What are 3 key attributes of a good problem solver?

3 key attributes of a good problem solver are persistence, intellegince, and empathy. Persistence is crucial to remain motivated to work through challenges. Inellegince is needed to make smart, informed choices. Empathy is crucial to maintain positive relationships with others as well as yourself.

What can I say instead of problem-solving skills?

Instead of saying problem-solving skills, you can say the following:

Critical thinker

Solutions-oriented

Engineering

Using different words is helpful, especially when writing your resume and cover letter.

What is problem-solving in the workplace?

Problem-solving in the workplace is the ability to work through any sort of challenge, conflict, or unexpected situation and still achieve business goals. Though it varies by profession, roblem-solving in the workplace is very important for almost any job, because probelms are inevitable. You need to have the appropriate level of problem-solving skills if you want to succeed in your career, whatever it may be.

Department of Labor – Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

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Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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Article • 7 min read

What Is Problem Solving?

Find a solution to any problem you face..

By the Mind Tools Content Team

problem solving role definition

We all spend a lot of our time solving problems, both at work and in our personal lives.

Some problems are small, and we can quickly sort them out ourselves. But others are complex challenges that take collaboration, creativity, and a considerable amount of effort to solve.

At work, the types of problems we face depend largely on the organizations we're in and the jobs we do. A manager in a cleaning company, for example, might spend their day untangling staffing issues, resolving client complaints, and sorting out problems with equipment and supplies. An aircraft designer, on the other hand, might be grappling with a problem about aerodynamics, or trying to work out why a new safety feature isn't working. Meanwhile, a politician might be exploring solutions to racial injustice or climate change.

But whatever issues we face, there are some common ways to tackle them effectively. And we can all boost our confidence and ability to succeed by building a strong set of problem-solving skills.

Mind Tools offers a large collection of resources to help you do just that!

How Well Do You Solve Problems?

Start by taking an honest look at your existing skills. What's your current approach to solving problems, and how well is it working? Our quiz, How Good Is Your Problem Solving? lets you analyze your abilities, and signposts ways to address any areas of weakness.

Define Every Problem

The first step in solving a problem is understanding what that problem actually is. You need to be sure that you're dealing with the real problem – not its symptoms. For example, if performance in your department is substandard, you might think that the problem lies with the individuals submitting work. However, if you look a bit deeper, the real issue might be a general lack of training, or an unreasonable workload across the team.

Tools like 5 Whys , Appreciation and Root Cause Analysis get you asking the right questions, and help you to work through the layers of a problem to uncover what's really going on.

However, defining a problem doesn't mean deciding how to solve it straightaway. It's important to look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. If you commit yourself too early, you can end up with a short-sighted solution. The CATWOE checklist provides a powerful reminder to look at many elements that may contribute to the problem, keeping you open to a variety of possible solutions.

Understanding Complexity

As you define your problem, you'll often discover just how complicated it is. There are likely several interrelated issues involved. That's why it's important to have ways to visualize, simplify and make sense of this tangled mess!

Affinity Diagrams are great for organizing many different pieces of information into common themes, and for understanding the relationships between them.

Another popular tool is the Cause-and-Effect Diagram . To generate viable solutions, you need a solid understanding of what's causing the problem.

When your problem occurs within a business process, creating a Flow Chart , Swim Lane Diagram or a Systems Diagram will help you to see how various activities and inputs fit together. This may well highlight a missing element or bottleneck that's causing your problem.

Quite often, what seems to be a single problem turns out to be a whole series of problems. The Drill Down technique prompts you to split your problem into smaller, more manageable parts.

General Problem-Solving Tools

When you understand the problem in front of you, you’re ready to start solving it. With your definition to guide you, you can generate several possible solutions, choose the best one, then put it into action. That's the four-step approach at the heart of good problem solving.

There are various problem-solving styles to use. For example:

  • Constructive Controversy is a way of widening perspectives and energizing discussions.
  • Inductive Reasoning makes the most of people’s experiences and know-how, and can speed up solution finding.
  • Means-End Analysis can bring extra clarity to your thinking, and kick-start the process of implementing solutions.

Specific Problem-Solving Systems

Some particularly complicated or important problems call for a more comprehensive process. Again, Mind Tools has a range of approaches to try, including:

  • Simplex , which involves an eight-stage process: problem finding, fact finding, defining the problem, idea finding, selecting and evaluating, planning, selling the idea, and acting. These steps build upon the basic, four-step process described above, and they create a cycle of problem finding and solving that will continually improve your organization.
  • Appreciative Inquiry , which is a uniquely positive way of solving problems by examining what's working well in the areas surrounding them.
  • Soft Systems Methodology , which takes you through four stages to uncover more details about what's creating your problem, and then define actions that will improve the situation.

Further Problem-Solving Strategies

Good problem solving requires a number of other skills – all of which are covered by Mind Tools.

For example, we have a large section of resources to improve your Creativity , so that you come up with a range of possible solutions.

By strengthening your Decision Making , you'll be better at evaluating the options, selecting the best ones, then choosing how to implement them.

And our Project Management collection has valuable advice for strengthening the whole problem-solving process. The resources there will help you to make effective changes – and then keep them working long term.

Problems are an inescapable part of life, both in and out of work. So we can all benefit from having strong problem-solving skills.

It's important to understand your current approach to problem solving, and to know where and how to improve.

Define every problem you encounter – and understand its complexity, rather than trying to solve it too soon.

There's a range of general problem-solving approaches, helping you to generate possible answers, choose the best ones, and then implement your solution.

Some complicated or serious problems require more specific problem-solving systems, especially when they relate to business processes.

By boosting your creativity, decision-making and project-management skills, you’ll become even better at solving all the problems you face.

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  • Getting to the root of the issue:  First, Sarah starts by looking at the numbers for the past few months. She identifies the products for which sales are falling. She then attempts to correlate it with the seasonal nature of consumption or if there is any other cause hiding behind the numbers. 
  • Identifying the sources of the problem:  In the next step, Sarah attempts to understand why sales are falling. Is it the entry of a new competitor in the next neighborhood, or have consumption preferences changed over time? She asks some of her present and past customers for feedback to get more ideas. 
  • Putting facts on the table:  Next up, Sarah talks to her sales team to understand their issues. They could be lacking training or facing heavy workloads, impacting their productivity. Together, they come up with a few ideas to improve sales. 
  • Selection and application:  Finally, Sarah and her team pick up a few ideas to work on after analyzing their costs and benefits. They ensure adequate resources, and Sarah provides support by guiding them wherever needed during the planning and execution stage. 
  • Identifying the root cause of the problem.
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  • Evaluating those solutions to select the best one.
  • Implementing it.

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  • Analytical thinking:   Analytical thinking skills refer to a leader’s abilities that help them analyze, study, and understand complex problems. It allows them to dive deeper into the issues impacting their teams and ensures that they can identify the causes accurately. 
  • Critical Thinking:  Critical thinking skills ensure leaders can think beyond the obvious. They enable leaders to question assumptions, break free from biases, and analyze situations and facts for accuracy. 
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  • Effective Communication:  Last but not at the end lies effective communication that brings together multiple stakeholders to solve a problem. It is an essential skill to collaborate with all the parties in any issue. Leaders need communication skills to share their ideas and gain support for them.

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35 problem-solving techniques and methods for solving complex problems

Problem solving workshop

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All teams and organizations encounter challenges as they grow. There are problems that might occur for teams when it comes to miscommunication or resolving business-critical issues . You may face challenges around growth , design , user engagement, and even team culture and happiness. In short, problem-solving techniques should be part of every team’s skillset.

Problem-solving methods are primarily designed to help a group or team through a process of first identifying problems and challenges , ideating possible solutions , and then evaluating the most suitable .

Finding effective solutions to complex problems isn’t easy, but by using the right process and techniques, you can help your team be more efficient in the process.

So how do you develop strategies that are engaging, and empower your team to solve problems effectively?

In this blog post, we share a series of problem-solving tools you can use in your next workshop or team meeting. You’ll also find some tips for facilitating the process and how to enable others to solve complex problems.

Let’s get started! 

How do you identify problems?

How do you identify the right solution.

  • Tips for more effective problem-solving

Complete problem-solving methods

  • Problem-solving techniques to identify and analyze problems
  • Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions

Problem-solving warm-up activities

Closing activities for a problem-solving process.

Before you can move towards finding the right solution for a given problem, you first need to identify and define the problem you wish to solve. 

Here, you want to clearly articulate what the problem is and allow your group to do the same. Remember that everyone in a group is likely to have differing perspectives and alignment is necessary in order to help the group move forward. 

Identifying a problem accurately also requires that all members of a group are able to contribute their views in an open and safe manner. It can be scary for people to stand up and contribute, especially if the problems or challenges are emotive or personal in nature. Be sure to try and create a psychologically safe space for these kinds of discussions.

Remember that problem analysis and further discussion are also important. Not taking the time to fully analyze and discuss a challenge can result in the development of solutions that are not fit for purpose or do not address the underlying issue.

Successfully identifying and then analyzing a problem means facilitating a group through activities designed to help them clearly and honestly articulate their thoughts and produce usable insight.

With this data, you might then produce a problem statement that clearly describes the problem you wish to be addressed and also state the goal of any process you undertake to tackle this issue.  

Finding solutions is the end goal of any process. Complex organizational challenges can only be solved with an appropriate solution but discovering them requires using the right problem-solving tool.

After you’ve explored a problem and discussed ideas, you need to help a team discuss and choose the right solution. Consensus tools and methods such as those below help a group explore possible solutions before then voting for the best. They’re a great way to tap into the collective intelligence of the group for great results!

Remember that the process is often iterative. Great problem solvers often roadtest a viable solution in a measured way to see what works too. While you might not get the right solution on your first try, the methods below help teams land on the most likely to succeed solution while also holding space for improvement.

Every effective problem solving process begins with an agenda . A well-structured workshop is one of the best methods for successfully guiding a group from exploring a problem to implementing a solution.

In SessionLab, it’s easy to go from an idea to a complete agenda . Start by dragging and dropping your core problem solving activities into place . Add timings, breaks and necessary materials before sharing your agenda with your colleagues.

The resulting agenda will be your guide to an effective and productive problem solving session that will also help you stay organized on the day!

problem solving role definition

Tips for more effective problem solving

Problem-solving activities are only one part of the puzzle. While a great method can help unlock your team’s ability to solve problems, without a thoughtful approach and strong facilitation the solutions may not be fit for purpose.

Let’s take a look at some problem-solving tips you can apply to any process to help it be a success!

Clearly define the problem

Jumping straight to solutions can be tempting, though without first clearly articulating a problem, the solution might not be the right one. Many of the problem-solving activities below include sections where the problem is explored and clearly defined before moving on.

This is a vital part of the problem-solving process and taking the time to fully define an issue can save time and effort later. A clear definition helps identify irrelevant information and it also ensures that your team sets off on the right track.

Don’t jump to conclusions

It’s easy for groups to exhibit cognitive bias or have preconceived ideas about both problems and potential solutions. Be sure to back up any problem statements or potential solutions with facts, research, and adequate forethought.

The best techniques ask participants to be methodical and challenge preconceived notions. Make sure you give the group enough time and space to collect relevant information and consider the problem in a new way. By approaching the process with a clear, rational mindset, you’ll often find that better solutions are more forthcoming.  

Try different approaches  

Problems come in all shapes and sizes and so too should the methods you use to solve them. If you find that one approach isn’t yielding results and your team isn’t finding different solutions, try mixing it up. You’ll be surprised at how using a new creative activity can unblock your team and generate great solutions.

Don’t take it personally 

Depending on the nature of your team or organizational problems, it’s easy for conversations to get heated. While it’s good for participants to be engaged in the discussions, ensure that emotions don’t run too high and that blame isn’t thrown around while finding solutions.

You’re all in it together, and even if your team or area is seeing problems, that isn’t necessarily a disparagement of you personally. Using facilitation skills to manage group dynamics is one effective method of helping conversations be more constructive.

Get the right people in the room

Your problem-solving method is often only as effective as the group using it. Getting the right people on the job and managing the number of people present is important too!

If the group is too small, you may not get enough different perspectives to effectively solve a problem. If the group is too large, you can go round and round during the ideation stages.

Creating the right group makeup is also important in ensuring you have the necessary expertise and skillset to both identify and follow up on potential solutions. Carefully consider who to include at each stage to help ensure your problem-solving method is followed and positioned for success.

Document everything

The best solutions can take refinement, iteration, and reflection to come out. Get into a habit of documenting your process in order to keep all the learnings from the session and to allow ideas to mature and develop. Many of the methods below involve the creation of documents or shared resources. Be sure to keep and share these so everyone can benefit from the work done!

Bring a facilitator 

Facilitation is all about making group processes easier. With a subject as potentially emotive and important as problem-solving, having an impartial third party in the form of a facilitator can make all the difference in finding great solutions and keeping the process moving. Consider bringing a facilitator to your problem-solving session to get better results and generate meaningful solutions!

Develop your problem-solving skills

It takes time and practice to be an effective problem solver. While some roles or participants might more naturally gravitate towards problem-solving, it can take development and planning to help everyone create better solutions.

You might develop a training program, run a problem-solving workshop or simply ask your team to practice using the techniques below. Check out our post on problem-solving skills to see how you and your group can develop the right mental process and be more resilient to issues too!

Design a great agenda

Workshops are a great format for solving problems. With the right approach, you can focus a group and help them find the solutions to their own problems. But designing a process can be time-consuming and finding the right activities can be difficult.

Check out our workshop planning guide to level-up your agenda design and start running more effective workshops. Need inspiration? Check out templates designed by expert facilitators to help you kickstart your process!

In this section, we’ll look at in-depth problem-solving methods that provide a complete end-to-end process for developing effective solutions. These will help guide your team from the discovery and definition of a problem through to delivering the right solution.

If you’re looking for an all-encompassing method or problem-solving model, these processes are a great place to start. They’ll ask your team to challenge preconceived ideas and adopt a mindset for solving problems more effectively.

  • Six Thinking Hats
  • Lightning Decision Jam
  • Problem Definition Process
  • Discovery & Action Dialogue
Design Sprint 2.0
  • Open Space Technology

1. Six Thinking Hats

Individual approaches to solving a problem can be very different based on what team or role an individual holds. It can be easy for existing biases or perspectives to find their way into the mix, or for internal politics to direct a conversation.

Six Thinking Hats is a classic method for identifying the problems that need to be solved and enables your team to consider them from different angles, whether that is by focusing on facts and data, creative solutions, or by considering why a particular solution might not work.

Like all problem-solving frameworks, Six Thinking Hats is effective at helping teams remove roadblocks from a conversation or discussion and come to terms with all the aspects necessary to solve complex problems.

2. Lightning Decision Jam

Featured courtesy of Jonathan Courtney of AJ&Smart Berlin, Lightning Decision Jam is one of those strategies that should be in every facilitation toolbox. Exploring problems and finding solutions is often creative in nature, though as with any creative process, there is the potential to lose focus and get lost.

Unstructured discussions might get you there in the end, but it’s much more effective to use a method that creates a clear process and team focus.

In Lightning Decision Jam, participants are invited to begin by writing challenges, concerns, or mistakes on post-its without discussing them before then being invited by the moderator to present them to the group.

From there, the team vote on which problems to solve and are guided through steps that will allow them to reframe those problems, create solutions and then decide what to execute on. 

By deciding the problems that need to be solved as a team before moving on, this group process is great for ensuring the whole team is aligned and can take ownership over the next stages. 

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow

3. Problem Definition Process

While problems can be complex, the problem-solving methods you use to identify and solve those problems can often be simple in design. 

By taking the time to truly identify and define a problem before asking the group to reframe the challenge as an opportunity, this method is a great way to enable change.

Begin by identifying a focus question and exploring the ways in which it manifests before splitting into five teams who will each consider the problem using a different method: escape, reversal, exaggeration, distortion or wishful. Teams develop a problem objective and create ideas in line with their method before then feeding them back to the group.

This method is great for enabling in-depth discussions while also creating space for finding creative solutions too!

Problem Definition   #problem solving   #idea generation   #creativity   #online   #remote-friendly   A problem solving technique to define a problem, challenge or opportunity and to generate ideas.

4. The 5 Whys 

Sometimes, a group needs to go further with their strategies and analyze the root cause at the heart of organizational issues. An RCA or root cause analysis is the process of identifying what is at the heart of business problems or recurring challenges. 

The 5 Whys is a simple and effective method of helping a group go find the root cause of any problem or challenge and conduct analysis that will deliver results. 

By beginning with the creation of a problem statement and going through five stages to refine it, The 5 Whys provides everything you need to truly discover the cause of an issue.

The 5 Whys   #hyperisland   #innovation   This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. As the title suggests, the group defines a problems, then asks the question “why” five times, often using the resulting explanation as a starting point for creative problem solving.

5. World Cafe

World Cafe is a simple but powerful facilitation technique to help bigger groups to focus their energy and attention on solving complex problems.

World Cafe enables this approach by creating a relaxed atmosphere where participants are able to self-organize and explore topics relevant and important to them which are themed around a central problem-solving purpose. Create the right atmosphere by modeling your space after a cafe and after guiding the group through the method, let them take the lead!

Making problem-solving a part of your organization’s culture in the long term can be a difficult undertaking. More approachable formats like World Cafe can be especially effective in bringing people unfamiliar with workshops into the fold. 

World Cafe   #hyperisland   #innovation   #issue analysis   World Café is a simple yet powerful method, originated by Juanita Brown, for enabling meaningful conversations driven completely by participants and the topics that are relevant and important to them. Facilitators create a cafe-style space and provide simple guidelines. Participants then self-organize and explore a set of relevant topics or questions for conversation.

6. Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)

One of the best approaches is to create a safe space for a group to share and discover practices and behaviors that can help them find their own solutions.

With DAD, you can help a group choose which problems they wish to solve and which approaches they will take to do so. It’s great at helping remove resistance to change and can help get buy-in at every level too!

This process of enabling frontline ownership is great in ensuring follow-through and is one of the methods you will want in your toolbox as a facilitator.

Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)   #idea generation   #liberating structures   #action   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   DADs make it easy for a group or community to discover practices and behaviors that enable some individuals (without access to special resources and facing the same constraints) to find better solutions than their peers to common problems. These are called positive deviant (PD) behaviors and practices. DADs make it possible for people in the group, unit, or community to discover by themselves these PD practices. DADs also create favorable conditions for stimulating participants’ creativity in spaces where they can feel safe to invent new and more effective practices. Resistance to change evaporates as participants are unleashed to choose freely which practices they will adopt or try and which problems they will tackle. DADs make it possible to achieve frontline ownership of solutions.

7. Design Sprint 2.0

Want to see how a team can solve big problems and move forward with prototyping and testing solutions in a few days? The Design Sprint 2.0 template from Jake Knapp, author of Sprint, is a complete agenda for a with proven results.

Developing the right agenda can involve difficult but necessary planning. Ensuring all the correct steps are followed can also be stressful or time-consuming depending on your level of experience.

Use this complete 4-day workshop template if you are finding there is no obvious solution to your challenge and want to focus your team around a specific problem that might require a shortcut to launching a minimum viable product or waiting for the organization-wide implementation of a solution.

8. Open space technology

Open space technology- developed by Harrison Owen – creates a space where large groups are invited to take ownership of their problem solving and lead individual sessions. Open space technology is a great format when you have a great deal of expertise and insight in the room and want to allow for different takes and approaches on a particular theme or problem you need to be solved.

Start by bringing your participants together to align around a central theme and focus their efforts. Explain the ground rules to help guide the problem-solving process and then invite members to identify any issue connecting to the central theme that they are interested in and are prepared to take responsibility for.

Once participants have decided on their approach to the core theme, they write their issue on a piece of paper, announce it to the group, pick a session time and place, and post the paper on the wall. As the wall fills up with sessions, the group is then invited to join the sessions that interest them the most and which they can contribute to, then you’re ready to begin!

Everyone joins the problem-solving group they’ve signed up to, record the discussion and if appropriate, findings can then be shared with the rest of the group afterward.

Open Space Technology   #action plan   #idea generation   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #large group   #online   #remote-friendly   Open Space is a methodology for large groups to create their agenda discerning important topics for discussion, suitable for conferences, community gatherings and whole system facilitation

Techniques to identify and analyze problems

Using a problem-solving method to help a team identify and analyze a problem can be a quick and effective addition to any workshop or meeting.

While further actions are always necessary, you can generate momentum and alignment easily, and these activities are a great place to get started.

We’ve put together this list of techniques to help you and your team with problem identification, analysis, and discussion that sets the foundation for developing effective solutions.

Let’s take a look!

  • The Creativity Dice
  • Fishbone Analysis
  • Problem Tree
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Agreement-Certainty Matrix
  • The Journalistic Six
  • LEGO Challenge
  • What, So What, Now What?
  • Journalists

Individual and group perspectives are incredibly important, but what happens if people are set in their minds and need a change of perspective in order to approach a problem more effectively?

Flip It is a method we love because it is both simple to understand and run, and allows groups to understand how their perspectives and biases are formed. 

Participants in Flip It are first invited to consider concerns, issues, or problems from a perspective of fear and write them on a flip chart. Then, the group is asked to consider those same issues from a perspective of hope and flip their understanding.  

No problem and solution is free from existing bias and by changing perspectives with Flip It, you can then develop a problem solving model quickly and effectively.

Flip It!   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Often, a change in a problem or situation comes simply from a change in our perspectives. Flip It! is a quick game designed to show players that perspectives are made, not born.

10. The Creativity Dice

One of the most useful problem solving skills you can teach your team is of approaching challenges with creativity, flexibility, and openness. Games like The Creativity Dice allow teams to overcome the potential hurdle of too much linear thinking and approach the process with a sense of fun and speed. 

In The Creativity Dice, participants are organized around a topic and roll a dice to determine what they will work on for a period of 3 minutes at a time. They might roll a 3 and work on investigating factual information on the chosen topic. They might roll a 1 and work on identifying the specific goals, standards, or criteria for the session.

Encouraging rapid work and iteration while asking participants to be flexible are great skills to cultivate. Having a stage for idea incubation in this game is also important. Moments of pause can help ensure the ideas that are put forward are the most suitable. 

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

11. Fishbone Analysis

Organizational or team challenges are rarely simple, and it’s important to remember that one problem can be an indication of something that goes deeper and may require further consideration to be solved.

Fishbone Analysis helps groups to dig deeper and understand the origins of a problem. It’s a great example of a root cause analysis method that is simple for everyone on a team to get their head around. 

Participants in this activity are asked to annotate a diagram of a fish, first adding the problem or issue to be worked on at the head of a fish before then brainstorming the root causes of the problem and adding them as bones on the fish. 

Using abstractions such as a diagram of a fish can really help a team break out of their regular thinking and develop a creative approach.

Fishbone Analysis   #problem solving   ##root cause analysis   #decision making   #online facilitation   A process to help identify and understand the origins of problems, issues or observations.

12. Problem Tree 

Encouraging visual thinking can be an essential part of many strategies. By simply reframing and clarifying problems, a group can move towards developing a problem solving model that works for them. 

In Problem Tree, groups are asked to first brainstorm a list of problems – these can be design problems, team problems or larger business problems – and then organize them into a hierarchy. The hierarchy could be from most important to least important or abstract to practical, though the key thing with problem solving games that involve this aspect is that your group has some way of managing and sorting all the issues that are raised.

Once you have a list of problems that need to be solved and have organized them accordingly, you’re then well-positioned for the next problem solving steps.

Problem tree   #define intentions   #create   #design   #issue analysis   A problem tree is a tool to clarify the hierarchy of problems addressed by the team within a design project; it represents high level problems or related sublevel problems.

13. SWOT Analysis

Chances are you’ve heard of the SWOT Analysis before. This problem-solving method focuses on identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats is a tried and tested method for both individuals and teams.

Start by creating a desired end state or outcome and bare this in mind – any process solving model is made more effective by knowing what you are moving towards. Create a quadrant made up of the four categories of a SWOT analysis and ask participants to generate ideas based on each of those quadrants.

Once you have those ideas assembled in their quadrants, cluster them together based on their affinity with other ideas. These clusters are then used to facilitate group conversations and move things forward. 

SWOT analysis   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   #meeting facilitation   The SWOT Analysis is a long-standing technique of looking at what we have, with respect to the desired end state, as well as what we could improve on. It gives us an opportunity to gauge approaching opportunities and dangers, and assess the seriousness of the conditions that affect our future. When we understand those conditions, we can influence what comes next.

14. Agreement-Certainty Matrix

Not every problem-solving approach is right for every challenge, and deciding on the right method for the challenge at hand is a key part of being an effective team.

The Agreement Certainty matrix helps teams align on the nature of the challenges facing them. By sorting problems from simple to chaotic, your team can understand what methods are suitable for each problem and what they can do to ensure effective results. 

If you are already using Liberating Structures techniques as part of your problem-solving strategy, the Agreement-Certainty Matrix can be an invaluable addition to your process. We’ve found it particularly if you are having issues with recurring problems in your organization and want to go deeper in understanding the root cause. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Organizing and charting a team’s progress can be important in ensuring its success. SQUID (Sequential Question and Insight Diagram) is a great model that allows a team to effectively switch between giving questions and answers and develop the skills they need to stay on track throughout the process. 

Begin with two different colored sticky notes – one for questions and one for answers – and with your central topic (the head of the squid) on the board. Ask the group to first come up with a series of questions connected to their best guess of how to approach the topic. Ask the group to come up with answers to those questions, fix them to the board and connect them with a line. After some discussion, go back to question mode by responding to the generated answers or other points on the board.

It’s rewarding to see a diagram grow throughout the exercise, and a completed SQUID can provide a visual resource for future effort and as an example for other teams.

SQUID   #gamestorming   #project planning   #issue analysis   #problem solving   When exploring an information space, it’s important for a group to know where they are at any given time. By using SQUID, a group charts out the territory as they go and can navigate accordingly. SQUID stands for Sequential Question and Insight Diagram.

16. Speed Boat

To continue with our nautical theme, Speed Boat is a short and sweet activity that can help a team quickly identify what employees, clients or service users might have a problem with and analyze what might be standing in the way of achieving a solution.

Methods that allow for a group to make observations, have insights and obtain those eureka moments quickly are invaluable when trying to solve complex problems.

In Speed Boat, the approach is to first consider what anchors and challenges might be holding an organization (or boat) back. Bonus points if you are able to identify any sharks in the water and develop ideas that can also deal with competitors!   

Speed Boat   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Speedboat is a short and sweet way to identify what your employees or clients don’t like about your product/service or what’s standing in the way of a desired goal.

17. The Journalistic Six

Some of the most effective ways of solving problems is by encouraging teams to be more inclusive and diverse in their thinking.

Based on the six key questions journalism students are taught to answer in articles and news stories, The Journalistic Six helps create teams to see the whole picture. By using who, what, when, where, why, and how to facilitate the conversation and encourage creative thinking, your team can make sure that the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the are covered exhaustively and thoughtfully. Reporter’s notebook and dictaphone optional.

The Journalistic Six – Who What When Where Why How   #idea generation   #issue analysis   #problem solving   #online   #creative thinking   #remote-friendly   A questioning method for generating, explaining, investigating ideas.

18. LEGO Challenge

Now for an activity that is a little out of the (toy) box. LEGO Serious Play is a facilitation methodology that can be used to improve creative thinking and problem-solving skills. 

The LEGO Challenge includes giving each member of the team an assignment that is hidden from the rest of the group while they create a structure without speaking.

What the LEGO challenge brings to the table is a fun working example of working with stakeholders who might not be on the same page to solve problems. Also, it’s LEGO! Who doesn’t love LEGO! 

LEGO Challenge   #hyperisland   #team   A team-building activity in which groups must work together to build a structure out of LEGO, but each individual has a secret “assignment” which makes the collaborative process more challenging. It emphasizes group communication, leadership dynamics, conflict, cooperation, patience and problem solving strategy.

19. What, So What, Now What?

If not carefully managed, the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the problem-solving process can actually create more problems and misunderstandings.

The What, So What, Now What? problem-solving activity is designed to help collect insights and move forward while also eliminating the possibility of disagreement when it comes to identifying, clarifying, and analyzing organizational or work problems. 

Facilitation is all about bringing groups together so that might work on a shared goal and the best problem-solving strategies ensure that teams are aligned in purpose, if not initially in opinion or insight.

Throughout the three steps of this game, you give everyone on a team to reflect on a problem by asking what happened, why it is important, and what actions should then be taken. 

This can be a great activity for bringing our individual perceptions about a problem or challenge and contextualizing it in a larger group setting. This is one of the most important problem-solving skills you can bring to your organization.

W³ – What, So What, Now What?   #issue analysis   #innovation   #liberating structures   You can help groups reflect on a shared experience in a way that builds understanding and spurs coordinated action while avoiding unproductive conflict. It is possible for every voice to be heard while simultaneously sifting for insights and shaping new direction. Progressing in stages makes this practical—from collecting facts about What Happened to making sense of these facts with So What and finally to what actions logically follow with Now What . The shared progression eliminates most of the misunderstandings that otherwise fuel disagreements about what to do. Voila!

20. Journalists  

Problem analysis can be one of the most important and decisive stages of all problem-solving tools. Sometimes, a team can become bogged down in the details and are unable to move forward.

Journalists is an activity that can avoid a group from getting stuck in the problem identification or problem analysis stages of the process.

In Journalists, the group is invited to draft the front page of a fictional newspaper and figure out what stories deserve to be on the cover and what headlines those stories will have. By reframing how your problems and challenges are approached, you can help a team move productively through the process and be better prepared for the steps to follow.

Journalists   #vision   #big picture   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   This is an exercise to use when the group gets stuck in details and struggles to see the big picture. Also good for defining a vision.

Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions 

The success of any problem-solving process can be measured by the solutions it produces. After you’ve defined the issue, explored existing ideas, and ideated, it’s time to narrow down to the correct solution.

Use these problem-solving techniques when you want to help your team find consensus, compare possible solutions, and move towards taking action on a particular problem.

  • Improved Solutions
  • Four-Step Sketch
  • 15% Solutions
  • How-Now-Wow matrix
  • Impact Effort Matrix

21. Mindspin  

Brainstorming is part of the bread and butter of the problem-solving process and all problem-solving strategies benefit from getting ideas out and challenging a team to generate solutions quickly. 

With Mindspin, participants are encouraged not only to generate ideas but to do so under time constraints and by slamming down cards and passing them on. By doing multiple rounds, your team can begin with a free generation of possible solutions before moving on to developing those solutions and encouraging further ideation. 

This is one of our favorite problem-solving activities and can be great for keeping the energy up throughout the workshop. Remember the importance of helping people become engaged in the process – energizing problem-solving techniques like Mindspin can help ensure your team stays engaged and happy, even when the problems they’re coming together to solve are complex. 

MindSpin   #teampedia   #idea generation   #problem solving   #action   A fast and loud method to enhance brainstorming within a team. Since this activity has more than round ideas that are repetitive can be ruled out leaving more creative and innovative answers to the challenge.

22. Improved Solutions

After a team has successfully identified a problem and come up with a few solutions, it can be tempting to call the work of the problem-solving process complete. That said, the first solution is not necessarily the best, and by including a further review and reflection activity into your problem-solving model, you can ensure your group reaches the best possible result. 

One of a number of problem-solving games from Thiagi Group, Improved Solutions helps you go the extra mile and develop suggested solutions with close consideration and peer review. By supporting the discussion of several problems at once and by shifting team roles throughout, this problem-solving technique is a dynamic way of finding the best solution. 

Improved Solutions   #creativity   #thiagi   #problem solving   #action   #team   You can improve any solution by objectively reviewing its strengths and weaknesses and making suitable adjustments. In this creativity framegame, you improve the solutions to several problems. To maintain objective detachment, you deal with a different problem during each of six rounds and assume different roles (problem owner, consultant, basher, booster, enhancer, and evaluator) during each round. At the conclusion of the activity, each player ends up with two solutions to her problem.

23. Four Step Sketch

Creative thinking and visual ideation does not need to be confined to the opening stages of your problem-solving strategies. Exercises that include sketching and prototyping on paper can be effective at the solution finding and development stage of the process, and can be great for keeping a team engaged. 

By going from simple notes to a crazy 8s round that involves rapidly sketching 8 variations on their ideas before then producing a final solution sketch, the group is able to iterate quickly and visually. Problem-solving techniques like Four-Step Sketch are great if you have a group of different thinkers and want to change things up from a more textual or discussion-based approach.

Four-Step Sketch   #design sprint   #innovation   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   The four-step sketch is an exercise that helps people to create well-formed concepts through a structured process that includes: Review key information Start design work on paper,  Consider multiple variations , Create a detailed solution . This exercise is preceded by a set of other activities allowing the group to clarify the challenge they want to solve. See how the Four Step Sketch exercise fits into a Design Sprint

24. 15% Solutions

Some problems are simpler than others and with the right problem-solving activities, you can empower people to take immediate actions that can help create organizational change. 

Part of the liberating structures toolkit, 15% solutions is a problem-solving technique that focuses on finding and implementing solutions quickly. A process of iterating and making small changes quickly can help generate momentum and an appetite for solving complex problems.

Problem-solving strategies can live and die on whether people are onboard. Getting some quick wins is a great way of getting people behind the process.   

It can be extremely empowering for a team to realize that problem-solving techniques can be deployed quickly and easily and delineate between things they can positively impact and those things they cannot change. 

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.

25. How-Now-Wow Matrix

The problem-solving process is often creative, as complex problems usually require a change of thinking and creative response in order to find the best solutions. While it’s common for the first stages to encourage creative thinking, groups can often gravitate to familiar solutions when it comes to the end of the process. 

When selecting solutions, you don’t want to lose your creative energy! The How-Now-Wow Matrix from Gamestorming is a great problem-solving activity that enables a group to stay creative and think out of the box when it comes to selecting the right solution for a given problem.

Problem-solving techniques that encourage creative thinking and the ideation and selection of new solutions can be the most effective in organisational change. Give the How-Now-Wow Matrix a go, and not just for how pleasant it is to say out loud. 

How-Now-Wow Matrix   #gamestorming   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   When people want to develop new ideas, they most often think out of the box in the brainstorming or divergent phase. However, when it comes to convergence, people often end up picking ideas that are most familiar to them. This is called a ‘creative paradox’ or a ‘creadox’. The How-Now-Wow matrix is an idea selection tool that breaks the creadox by forcing people to weigh each idea on 2 parameters.

26. Impact and Effort Matrix

All problem-solving techniques hope to not only find solutions to a given problem or challenge but to find the best solution. When it comes to finding a solution, groups are invited to put on their decision-making hats and really think about how a proposed idea would work in practice. 

The Impact and Effort Matrix is one of the problem-solving techniques that fall into this camp, empowering participants to first generate ideas and then categorize them into a 2×2 matrix based on impact and effort.

Activities that invite critical thinking while remaining simple are invaluable. Use the Impact and Effort Matrix to move from ideation and towards evaluating potential solutions before then committing to them. 

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

27. Dotmocracy

If you’ve followed each of the problem-solving steps with your group successfully, you should move towards the end of your process with heaps of possible solutions developed with a specific problem in mind. But how do you help a group go from ideation to putting a solution into action? 

Dotmocracy – or Dot Voting -is a tried and tested method of helping a team in the problem-solving process make decisions and put actions in place with a degree of oversight and consensus. 

One of the problem-solving techniques that should be in every facilitator’s toolbox, Dot Voting is fast and effective and can help identify the most popular and best solutions and help bring a group to a decision effectively. 

Dotmocracy   #action   #decision making   #group prioritization   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Dotmocracy is a simple method for group prioritization or decision-making. It is not an activity on its own, but a method to use in processes where prioritization or decision-making is the aim. The method supports a group to quickly see which options are most popular or relevant. The options or ideas are written on post-its and stuck up on a wall for the whole group to see. Each person votes for the options they think are the strongest, and that information is used to inform a decision.

All facilitators know that warm-ups and icebreakers are useful for any workshop or group process. Problem-solving workshops are no different.

Use these problem-solving techniques to warm up a group and prepare them for the rest of the process. Activating your group by tapping into some of the top problem-solving skills can be one of the best ways to see great outcomes from your session.

  • Check-in/Check-out
  • Doodling Together
  • Show and Tell
  • Constellations
  • Draw a Tree

28. Check-in / Check-out

Solid processes are planned from beginning to end, and the best facilitators know that setting the tone and establishing a safe, open environment can be integral to a successful problem-solving process.

Check-in / Check-out is a great way to begin and/or bookend a problem-solving workshop. Checking in to a session emphasizes that everyone will be seen, heard, and expected to contribute. 

If you are running a series of meetings, setting a consistent pattern of checking in and checking out can really help your team get into a groove. We recommend this opening-closing activity for small to medium-sized groups though it can work with large groups if they’re disciplined!

Check-in / Check-out   #team   #opening   #closing   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Either checking-in or checking-out is a simple way for a team to open or close a process, symbolically and in a collaborative way. Checking-in/out invites each member in a group to be present, seen and heard, and to express a reflection or a feeling. Checking-in emphasizes presence, focus and group commitment; checking-out emphasizes reflection and symbolic closure.

29. Doodling Together  

Thinking creatively and not being afraid to make suggestions are important problem-solving skills for any group or team, and warming up by encouraging these behaviors is a great way to start. 

Doodling Together is one of our favorite creative ice breaker games – it’s quick, effective, and fun and can make all following problem-solving steps easier by encouraging a group to collaborate visually. By passing cards and adding additional items as they go, the workshop group gets into a groove of co-creation and idea development that is crucial to finding solutions to problems. 

Doodling Together   #collaboration   #creativity   #teamwork   #fun   #team   #visual methods   #energiser   #icebreaker   #remote-friendly   Create wild, weird and often funny postcards together & establish a group’s creative confidence.

30. Show and Tell

You might remember some version of Show and Tell from being a kid in school and it’s a great problem-solving activity to kick off a session.

Asking participants to prepare a little something before a workshop by bringing an object for show and tell can help them warm up before the session has even begun! Games that include a physical object can also help encourage early engagement before moving onto more big-picture thinking.

By asking your participants to tell stories about why they chose to bring a particular item to the group, you can help teams see things from new perspectives and see both differences and similarities in the way they approach a topic. Great groundwork for approaching a problem-solving process as a team! 

Show and Tell   #gamestorming   #action   #opening   #meeting facilitation   Show and Tell taps into the power of metaphors to reveal players’ underlying assumptions and associations around a topic The aim of the game is to get a deeper understanding of stakeholders’ perspectives on anything—a new project, an organizational restructuring, a shift in the company’s vision or team dynamic.

31. Constellations

Who doesn’t love stars? Constellations is a great warm-up activity for any workshop as it gets people up off their feet, energized, and ready to engage in new ways with established topics. It’s also great for showing existing beliefs, biases, and patterns that can come into play as part of your session.

Using warm-up games that help build trust and connection while also allowing for non-verbal responses can be great for easing people into the problem-solving process and encouraging engagement from everyone in the group. Constellations is great in large spaces that allow for movement and is definitely a practical exercise to allow the group to see patterns that are otherwise invisible. 

Constellations   #trust   #connection   #opening   #coaching   #patterns   #system   Individuals express their response to a statement or idea by standing closer or further from a central object. Used with teams to reveal system, hidden patterns, perspectives.

32. Draw a Tree

Problem-solving games that help raise group awareness through a central, unifying metaphor can be effective ways to warm-up a group in any problem-solving model.

Draw a Tree is a simple warm-up activity you can use in any group and which can provide a quick jolt of energy. Start by asking your participants to draw a tree in just 45 seconds – they can choose whether it will be abstract or realistic. 

Once the timer is up, ask the group how many people included the roots of the tree and use this as a means to discuss how we can ignore important parts of any system simply because they are not visible.

All problem-solving strategies are made more effective by thinking of problems critically and by exposing things that may not normally come to light. Warm-up games like Draw a Tree are great in that they quickly demonstrate some key problem-solving skills in an accessible and effective way.

Draw a Tree   #thiagi   #opening   #perspectives   #remote-friendly   With this game you can raise awarness about being more mindful, and aware of the environment we live in.

Each step of the problem-solving workshop benefits from an intelligent deployment of activities, games, and techniques. Bringing your session to an effective close helps ensure that solutions are followed through on and that you also celebrate what has been achieved.

Here are some problem-solving activities you can use to effectively close a workshop or meeting and ensure the great work you’ve done can continue afterward.

  • One Breath Feedback
  • Who What When Matrix
  • Response Cards

How do I conclude a problem-solving process?

All good things must come to an end. With the bulk of the work done, it can be tempting to conclude your workshop swiftly and without a moment to debrief and align. This can be problematic in that it doesn’t allow your team to fully process the results or reflect on the process.

At the end of an effective session, your team will have gone through a process that, while productive, can be exhausting. It’s important to give your group a moment to take a breath, ensure that they are clear on future actions, and provide short feedback before leaving the space. 

The primary purpose of any problem-solving method is to generate solutions and then implement them. Be sure to take the opportunity to ensure everyone is aligned and ready to effectively implement the solutions you produced in the workshop.

Remember that every process can be improved and by giving a short moment to collect feedback in the session, you can further refine your problem-solving methods and see further success in the future too.

33. One Breath Feedback

Maintaining attention and focus during the closing stages of a problem-solving workshop can be tricky and so being concise when giving feedback can be important. It’s easy to incur “death by feedback” should some team members go on for too long sharing their perspectives in a quick feedback round. 

One Breath Feedback is a great closing activity for workshops. You give everyone an opportunity to provide feedback on what they’ve done but only in the space of a single breath. This keeps feedback short and to the point and means that everyone is encouraged to provide the most important piece of feedback to them. 

One breath feedback   #closing   #feedback   #action   This is a feedback round in just one breath that excels in maintaining attention: each participants is able to speak during just one breath … for most people that’s around 20 to 25 seconds … unless of course you’ve been a deep sea diver in which case you’ll be able to do it for longer.

34. Who What When Matrix 

Matrices feature as part of many effective problem-solving strategies and with good reason. They are easily recognizable, simple to use, and generate results.

The Who What When Matrix is a great tool to use when closing your problem-solving session by attributing a who, what and when to the actions and solutions you have decided upon. The resulting matrix is a simple, easy-to-follow way of ensuring your team can move forward. 

Great solutions can’t be enacted without action and ownership. Your problem-solving process should include a stage for allocating tasks to individuals or teams and creating a realistic timeframe for those solutions to be implemented or checked out. Use this method to keep the solution implementation process clear and simple for all involved. 

Who/What/When Matrix   #gamestorming   #action   #project planning   With Who/What/When matrix, you can connect people with clear actions they have defined and have committed to.

35. Response cards

Group discussion can comprise the bulk of most problem-solving activities and by the end of the process, you might find that your team is talked out! 

Providing a means for your team to give feedback with short written notes can ensure everyone is head and can contribute without the need to stand up and talk. Depending on the needs of the group, giving an alternative can help ensure everyone can contribute to your problem-solving model in the way that makes the most sense for them.

Response Cards is a great way to close a workshop if you are looking for a gentle warm-down and want to get some swift discussion around some of the feedback that is raised. 

Response Cards   #debriefing   #closing   #structured sharing   #questions and answers   #thiagi   #action   It can be hard to involve everyone during a closing of a session. Some might stay in the background or get unheard because of louder participants. However, with the use of Response Cards, everyone will be involved in providing feedback or clarify questions at the end of a session.

Save time and effort discovering the right solutions

A structured problem solving process is a surefire way of solving tough problems, discovering creative solutions and driving organizational change. But how can you design for successful outcomes?

With SessionLab, it’s easy to design engaging workshops that deliver results. Drag, drop and reorder blocks  to build your agenda. When you make changes or update your agenda, your session  timing   adjusts automatically , saving you time on manual adjustments.

Collaborating with stakeholders or clients? Share your agenda with a single click and collaborate in real-time. No more sending documents back and forth over email.

Explore  how to use SessionLab  to design effective problem solving workshops or  watch this five minute video  to see the planner in action!

problem solving role definition

Over to you

The problem-solving process can often be as complicated and multifaceted as the problems they are set-up to solve. With the right problem-solving techniques and a mix of creative exercises designed to guide discussion and generate purposeful ideas, we hope we’ve given you the tools to find the best solutions as simply and easily as possible.

Is there a problem-solving technique that you are missing here? Do you have a favorite activity or method you use when facilitating? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you! 

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thank you very much for these excellent techniques

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Your list of techniques for problem solving can be helpfully extended by adding TRIZ to the list of techniques. TRIZ has 40 problem solving techniques derived from methods inventros and patent holders used to get new patents. About 10-12 are general approaches. many organization sponsor classes in TRIZ that are used to solve business problems or general organiztational problems. You can take a look at TRIZ and dwonload a free internet booklet to see if you feel it shound be included per your selection process.

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Problem Solving

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problem solving role definition

  • David H. Jonassen 2 &
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Cognition ; Problem typology ; Problem-based learning ; Problems ; Reasoning

Problem solving is the process of constructing and applying mental representations of problems to finding solutions to those problems that are encountered in nearly every context.

Theoretical Background

Problem solving is the process of articulating solutions to problems. Problems have two critical attributes. First, a problem is an unknown in some context. That is, there is a situation in which there is something that is unknown (the difference between a goal state and a current state). Those situations vary from algorithmic math problems to vexing and complex social problems, such as violence in society (see Problem Typology ). Second, finding or solving for the unknown must have some social, cultural, or intellectual value. That is, someone believes that it is worth finding the unknown. If no one perceives an unknown or a need to determine an unknown, there is no perceived problem. Finding...

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Jonassen, D.H., Hung, W. (2012). Problem Solving. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_208

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What Is Problem Solving? How Software Engineers Approach Complex Challenges

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From debugging an existing system to designing an entirely new software application, a day in the life of a software engineer is filled with various challenges and complexities. The one skill that glues these disparate tasks together and makes them manageable? Problem solving . 

Throughout this blog post, we’ll explore why problem-solving skills are so critical for software engineers, delve into the techniques they use to address complex challenges, and discuss how hiring managers can identify these skills during the hiring process. 

What Is Problem Solving?

But what exactly is problem solving in the context of software engineering? How does it work, and why is it so important?

Problem solving, in the simplest terms, is the process of identifying a problem, analyzing it, and finding the most effective solution to overcome it. For software engineers, this process is deeply embedded in their daily workflow. It could be something as simple as figuring out why a piece of code isn’t working as expected, or something as complex as designing the architecture for a new software system. 

In a world where technology is evolving at a blistering pace, the complexity and volume of problems that software engineers face are also growing. As such, the ability to tackle these issues head-on and find innovative solutions is not only a handy skill — it’s a necessity. 

The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills for Software Engineers

Problem-solving isn’t just another ability that software engineers pull out of their toolkits when they encounter a bug or a system failure. It’s a constant, ongoing process that’s intrinsic to every aspect of their work. Let’s break down why this skill is so critical.

Driving Development Forward

Without problem solving, software development would hit a standstill. Every new feature, every optimization, and every bug fix is a problem that needs solving. Whether it’s a performance issue that needs diagnosing or a user interface that needs improving, the capacity to tackle and solve these problems is what keeps the wheels of development turning.

It’s estimated that 60% of software development lifecycle costs are related to maintenance tasks, including debugging and problem solving. This highlights how pivotal this skill is to the everyday functioning and advancement of software systems.

Innovation and Optimization

The importance of problem solving isn’t confined to reactive scenarios; it also plays a major role in proactive, innovative initiatives . Software engineers often need to think outside the box to come up with creative solutions, whether it’s optimizing an algorithm to run faster or designing a new feature to meet customer needs. These are all forms of problem solving.

Consider the development of the modern smartphone. It wasn’t born out of a pre-existing issue but was a solution to a problem people didn’t realize they had — a device that combined communication, entertainment, and productivity into one handheld tool.

Increasing Efficiency and Productivity

Good problem-solving skills can save a lot of time and resources. Effective problem-solvers are adept at dissecting an issue to understand its root cause, thus reducing the time spent on trial and error. This efficiency means projects move faster, releases happen sooner, and businesses stay ahead of their competition.

Improving Software Quality

Problem solving also plays a significant role in enhancing the quality of the end product. By tackling the root causes of bugs and system failures, software engineers can deliver reliable, high-performing software. This is critical because, according to the Consortium for Information and Software Quality, poor quality software in the U.S. in 2022 cost at least $2.41 trillion in operational issues, wasted developer time, and other related problems.

Problem-Solving Techniques in Software Engineering

So how do software engineers go about tackling these complex challenges? Let’s explore some of the key problem-solving techniques, theories, and processes they commonly use.

Decomposition

Breaking down a problem into smaller, manageable parts is one of the first steps in the problem-solving process. It’s like dealing with a complicated puzzle. You don’t try to solve it all at once. Instead, you separate the pieces, group them based on similarities, and then start working on the smaller sets. This method allows software engineers to handle complex issues without being overwhelmed and makes it easier to identify where things might be going wrong.

Abstraction

In the realm of software engineering, abstraction means focusing on the necessary information only and ignoring irrelevant details. It is a way of simplifying complex systems to make them easier to understand and manage. For instance, a software engineer might ignore the details of how a database works to focus on the information it holds and how to retrieve or modify that information.

Algorithmic Thinking

At its core, software engineering is about creating algorithms — step-by-step procedures to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. Algorithmic thinking involves conceiving and expressing these procedures clearly and accurately and viewing every problem through an algorithmic lens. A well-designed algorithm not only solves the problem at hand but also does so efficiently, saving computational resources.

Parallel Thinking

Parallel thinking is a structured process where team members think in the same direction at the same time, allowing for more organized discussion and collaboration. It’s an approach popularized by Edward de Bono with the “ Six Thinking Hats ” technique, where each “hat” represents a different style of thinking.

In the context of software engineering, parallel thinking can be highly effective for problem solving. For instance, when dealing with a complex issue, the team can use the “White Hat” to focus solely on the data and facts about the problem, then the “Black Hat” to consider potential problems with a proposed solution, and so on. This structured approach can lead to more comprehensive analysis and more effective solutions, and it ensures that everyone’s perspectives are considered.

This is the process of identifying and fixing errors in code . Debugging involves carefully reviewing the code, reproducing and analyzing the error, and then making necessary modifications to rectify the problem. It’s a key part of maintaining and improving software quality.

Testing and Validation

Testing is an essential part of problem solving in software engineering. Engineers use a variety of tests to verify that their code works as expected and to uncover any potential issues. These range from unit tests that check individual components of the code to integration tests that ensure the pieces work well together. Validation, on the other hand, ensures that the solution not only works but also fulfills the intended requirements and objectives.

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Evaluating Problem-Solving Skills

We’ve examined the importance of problem-solving in the work of a software engineer and explored various techniques software engineers employ to approach complex challenges. Now, let’s delve into how hiring teams can identify and evaluate problem-solving skills during the hiring process.

Recognizing Problem-Solving Skills in Candidates

How can you tell if a candidate is a good problem solver? Look for these indicators:

  • Previous Experience: A history of dealing with complex, challenging projects is often a good sign. Ask the candidate to discuss a difficult problem they faced in a previous role and how they solved it.
  • Problem-Solving Questions: During interviews, pose hypothetical scenarios or present real problems your company has faced. Ask candidates to explain how they would tackle these issues. You’re not just looking for a correct solution but the thought process that led them there.
  • Technical Tests: Coding challenges and other technical tests can provide insight into a candidate’s problem-solving abilities. Consider leveraging a platform for assessing these skills in a realistic, job-related context.

Assessing Problem-Solving Skills

Once you’ve identified potential problem solvers, here are a few ways you can assess their skills:

  • Solution Effectiveness: Did the candidate solve the problem? How efficient and effective is their solution?
  • Approach and Process: Go beyond whether or not they solved the problem and examine how they arrived at their solution. Did they break the problem down into manageable parts? Did they consider different perspectives and possibilities?
  • Communication: A good problem solver can explain their thought process clearly. Can the candidate effectively communicate how they arrived at their solution and why they chose it?
  • Adaptability: Problem-solving often involves a degree of trial and error. How does the candidate handle roadblocks? Do they adapt their approach based on new information or feedback?

Hiring managers play a crucial role in identifying and fostering problem-solving skills within their teams. By focusing on these abilities during the hiring process, companies can build teams that are more capable, innovative, and resilient.

Key Takeaways

As you can see, problem solving plays a pivotal role in software engineering. Far from being an occasional requirement, it is the lifeblood that drives development forward, catalyzes innovation, and delivers of quality software. 

By leveraging problem-solving techniques, software engineers employ a powerful suite of strategies to overcome complex challenges. But mastering these techniques isn’t simple feat. It requires a learning mindset, regular practice, collaboration, reflective thinking, resilience, and a commitment to staying updated with industry trends. 

For hiring managers and team leads, recognizing these skills and fostering a culture that values and nurtures problem solving is key. It’s this emphasis on problem solving that can differentiate an average team from a high-performing one and an ordinary product from an industry-leading one.

At the end of the day, software engineering is fundamentally about solving problems — problems that matter to businesses, to users, and to the wider society. And it’s the proficient problem solvers who stand at the forefront of this dynamic field, turning challenges into opportunities, and ideas into reality.

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Problem management roles and responsibilities.

Problem management is about more than just finding and fixing incidents. Real problem management lies in identifying and understanding the underlying causes of an incident as well as identifying the best method to eliminate that root cause. 

That’s why effective problem management efforts consist of teams operating under clear roles and responsibilities. Team members understand what the roles are, what each person is responsible for, and who is in each role during a problem investigation.

Here are a few of the most common problem management roles. It’s important to understand that not every team will operate with every role on this list. And these aren’t necessarily permanent roles. Instead, think of them as designations for a team that comes together to work on a particular problem.

Problem manager

The problem owner manages the overall process for a specific problem. They coordinate and direct all facets of the problem management effort, including bringing the right teams, tools, and information together. The problem manager may also delegate subtasks to other team members as they see fit.

Also called : Problem owner, Major Incident Manager

Process owner

The process owner is responsible for the overall health and success of the team’s problem management process. They oversee evolution and development of the process, as well as team member training and onboarding.

Also called : Process manager, process coordinator

Service owner

The service owner is responsible for defining ongoing operations and health of the service. This can include measuring and reporting on the value of changes, enhancements, planned downtime, training, documentation, and more.

Also called : Service leader, product manager

Service desk agent

Front-line support for your service desk . The service desk agent is often the first to notice and report an incident or problem. The agent is often also the first person to notice that several unique incidents all relate to a greater problem.

Also called : Agent, Service agent, Support Agent, Help desk agent, Service desk analyst

An individual familiar with the impacted service experiencing a problem or incident. Often a developer or engineer, the tech lead can dive into recent code changes to see what root causes may be contributing to the problem.

Also called : Technical lead, subject matter expert, on-call engineer, developer, software developer, Site Reliability Engineer (SRE)

Stakeholders

Stakeholders can be whoever needs high-level info on the problem but isn’t directly involved in the problem management process. This can be anyone from adjacent teams, to customers, and organizational leaders.

Also called : Customers, executive teams, vendors, end users, business teams

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The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology

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The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology

48 Problem Solving

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara

  • Published: 03 June 2013
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Problem solving refers to cognitive processing directed at achieving a goal when the problem solver does not initially know a solution method. A problem exists when someone has a goal but does not know how to achieve it. Problems can be classified as routine or nonroutine, and as well defined or ill defined. The major cognitive processes in problem solving are representing, planning, executing, and monitoring. The major kinds of knowledge required for problem solving are facts, concepts, procedures, strategies, and beliefs. Classic theoretical approaches to the study of problem solving are associationism, Gestalt, and information processing. Current issues and suggested future issues include decision making, intelligence and creativity, teaching of thinking skills, expert problem solving, analogical reasoning, mathematical and scientific thinking, everyday thinking, and the cognitive neuroscience of problem solving. Common themes concern the domain specificity of problem solving and a focus on problem solving in authentic contexts.

The study of problem solving begins with defining problem solving, problem, and problem types. This introduction to problem solving is rounded out with an examination of cognitive processes in problem solving, the role of knowledge in problem solving, and historical approaches to the study of problem solving.

Definition of Problem Solving

Problem solving refers to cognitive processing directed at achieving a goal for which the problem solver does not initially know a solution method. This definition consists of four major elements (Mayer, 1992 ; Mayer & Wittrock, 2006 ):

Cognitive —Problem solving occurs within the problem solver’s cognitive system and can only be inferred indirectly from the problem solver’s behavior (including biological changes, introspections, and actions during problem solving). Process —Problem solving involves mental computations in which some operation is applied to a mental representation, sometimes resulting in the creation of a new mental representation. Directed —Problem solving is aimed at achieving a goal. Personal —Problem solving depends on the existing knowledge of the problem solver so that what is a problem for one problem solver may not be a problem for someone who already knows a solution method.

The definition is broad enough to include a wide array of cognitive activities such as deciding which apartment to rent, figuring out how to use a cell phone interface, playing a game of chess, making a medical diagnosis, finding the answer to an arithmetic word problem, or writing a chapter for a handbook. Problem solving is pervasive in human life and is crucial for human survival. Although this chapter focuses on problem solving in humans, problem solving also occurs in nonhuman animals and in intelligent machines.

How is problem solving related to other forms of high-level cognition processing, such as thinking and reasoning? Thinking refers to cognitive processing in individuals but includes both directed thinking (which corresponds to the definition of problem solving) and undirected thinking such as daydreaming (which does not correspond to the definition of problem solving). Thus, problem solving is a type of thinking (i.e., directed thinking).

Reasoning refers to problem solving within specific classes of problems, such as deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, the reasoner is given premises and must derive a conclusion by applying the rules of logic. For example, given that “A is greater than B” and “B is greater than C,” a reasoner can conclude that “A is greater than C.” In inductive reasoning, the reasoner is given (or has experienced) a collection of examples or instances and must infer a rule. For example, given that X, C, and V are in the “yes” group and x, c, and v are in the “no” group, the reasoning may conclude that B is in “yes” group because it is in uppercase format. Thus, reasoning is a type of problem solving.

Definition of Problem

A problem occurs when someone has a goal but does not know to achieve it. This definition is consistent with how the Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker ( 1945 , p. 1) defined a problem in his classic monograph, On Problem Solving : “A problem arises when a living creature has a goal but does not know how this goal is to be reached.” However, today researchers recognize that the definition should be extended to include problem solving by intelligent machines. This definition can be clarified using an information processing approach by noting that a problem occurs when a situation is in the given state, the problem solver wants the situation to be in the goal state, and there is no obvious way to move from the given state to the goal state (Newell & Simon, 1972 ). Accordingly, the three main elements in describing a problem are the given state (i.e., the current state of the situation), the goal state (i.e., the desired state of the situation), and the set of allowable operators (i.e., the actions the problem solver is allowed to take). The definition of “problem” is broad enough to include the situation confronting a physician who wishes to make a diagnosis on the basis of preliminary tests and a patient examination, as well as a beginning physics student trying to solve a complex physics problem.

Types of Problems

It is customary in the problem-solving literature to make a distinction between routine and nonroutine problems. Routine problems are problems that are so familiar to the problem solver that the problem solver knows a solution method. For example, for most adults, “What is 365 divided by 12?” is a routine problem because they already know the procedure for long division. Nonroutine problems are so unfamiliar to the problem solver that the problem solver does not know a solution method. For example, figuring out the best way to set up a funding campaign for a nonprofit charity is a nonroutine problem for most volunteers. Technically, routine problems do not meet the definition of problem because the problem solver has a goal but knows how to achieve it. Much research on problem solving has focused on routine problems, although most interesting problems in life are nonroutine.

Another customary distinction is between well-defined and ill-defined problems. Well-defined problems have a clearly specified given state, goal state, and legal operators. Examples include arithmetic computation problems or games such as checkers or tic-tac-toe. Ill-defined problems have a poorly specified given state, goal state, or legal operators, or a combination of poorly defined features. Examples include solving the problem of global warming or finding a life partner. Although, ill-defined problems are more challenging, much research in problem solving has focused on well-defined problems.

Cognitive Processes in Problem Solving

The process of problem solving can be broken down into two main phases: problem representation , in which the problem solver builds a mental representation of the problem situation, and problem solution , in which the problem solver works to produce a solution. The major subprocess in problem representation is representing , which involves building a situation model —that is, a mental representation of the situation described in the problem. The major subprocesses in problem solution are planning , which involves devising a plan for how to solve the problem; executing , which involves carrying out the plan; and monitoring , which involves evaluating and adjusting one’s problem solving.

For example, given an arithmetic word problem such as “Alice has three marbles. Sarah has two more marbles than Alice. How many marbles does Sarah have?” the process of representing involves building a situation model in which Alice has a set of marbles, there is set of marbles for the difference between the two girls, and Sarah has a set of marbles that consists of Alice’s marbles and the difference set. In the planning process, the problem solver sets a goal of adding 3 and 2. In the executing process, the problem solver carries out the computation, yielding an answer of 5. In the monitoring process, the problem solver looks over what was done and concludes that 5 is a reasonable answer. In most complex problem-solving episodes, the four cognitive processes may not occur in linear order, but rather may interact with one another. Although some research focuses mainly on the execution process, problem solvers may tend to have more difficulty with the processes of representing, planning, and monitoring.

Knowledge for Problem Solving

An important theme in problem-solving research is that problem-solving proficiency on any task depends on the learner’s knowledge (Anderson et al., 2001 ; Mayer, 1992 ). Five kinds of knowledge are as follows:

Facts —factual knowledge about the characteristics of elements in the world, such as “Sacramento is the capital of California” Concepts —conceptual knowledge, including categories, schemas, or models, such as knowing the difference between plants and animals or knowing how a battery works Procedures —procedural knowledge of step-by-step processes, such as how to carry out long-division computations Strategies —strategic knowledge of general methods such as breaking a problem into parts or thinking of a related problem Beliefs —attitudinal knowledge about how one’s cognitive processing works such as thinking, “I’m good at this”

Although some research focuses mainly on the role of facts and procedures in problem solving, complex problem solving also depends on the problem solver’s concepts, strategies, and beliefs (Mayer, 1992 ).

Historical Approaches to Problem Solving

Psychological research on problem solving began in the early 1900s, as an outgrowth of mental philosophy (Humphrey, 1963 ; Mandler & Mandler, 1964 ). Throughout the 20th century four theoretical approaches developed: early conceptions, associationism, Gestalt psychology, and information processing.

Early Conceptions

The start of psychology as a science can be set at 1879—the year Wilhelm Wundt opened the first world’s psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and sought to train the world’s first cohort of experimental psychologists. Instead of relying solely on philosophical speculations about how the human mind works, Wundt sought to apply the methods of experimental science to issues addressed in mental philosophy. His theoretical approach became structuralism —the analysis of consciousness into its basic elements.

Wundt’s main contribution to the study of problem solving, however, was to call for its banishment. According to Wundt, complex cognitive processing was too complicated to be studied by experimental methods, so “nothing can be discovered in such experiments” (Wundt, 1911/1973 ). Despite his admonishments, however, a group of his former students began studying thinking mainly in Wurzburg, Germany. Using the method of introspection, subjects were asked to describe their thought process as they solved word association problems, such as finding the superordinate of “newspaper” (e.g., an answer is “publication”). Although the Wurzburg group—as they came to be called—did not produce a new theoretical approach, they found empirical evidence that challenged some of the key assumptions of mental philosophy. For example, Aristotle had proclaimed that all thinking involves mental imagery, but the Wurzburg group was able to find empirical evidence for imageless thought .

Associationism

The first major theoretical approach to take hold in the scientific study of problem solving was associationism —the idea that the cognitive representations in the mind consist of ideas and links between them and that cognitive processing in the mind involves following a chain of associations from one idea to the next (Mandler & Mandler, 1964 ; Mayer, 1992 ). For example, in a classic study, E. L. Thorndike ( 1911 ) placed a hungry cat in what he called a puzzle box—a wooden crate in which pulling a loop of string that hung from overhead would open a trap door to allow the cat to escape to a bowl of food outside the crate. Thorndike placed the cat in the puzzle box once a day for several weeks. On the first day, the cat engaged in many extraneous behaviors such as pouncing against the wall, pushing its paws through the slats, and meowing, but on successive days the number of extraneous behaviors tended to decrease. Overall, the time required to get out of the puzzle box decreased over the course of the experiment, indicating the cat was learning how to escape.

Thorndike’s explanation for how the cat learned to solve the puzzle box problem is based on an associationist view: The cat begins with a habit family hierarchy —a set of potential responses (e.g., pouncing, thrusting, meowing, etc.) all associated with the same stimulus (i.e., being hungry and confined) and ordered in terms of strength of association. When placed in the puzzle box, the cat executes its strongest response (e.g., perhaps pouncing against the wall), but when it fails, the strength of the association is weakened, and so on for each unsuccessful action. Eventually, the cat gets down to what was initially a weak response—waving its paw in the air—but when that response leads to accidentally pulling the string and getting out, it is strengthened. Over the course of many trials, the ineffective responses become weak and the successful response becomes strong. Thorndike refers to this process as the law of effect : Responses that lead to dissatisfaction become less associated with the situation and responses that lead to satisfaction become more associated with the situation. According to Thorndike’s associationist view, solving a problem is simply a matter of trial and error and accidental success. A major challenge to assocationist theory concerns the nature of transfer—that is, where does a problem solver find a creative solution that has never been performed before? Associationist conceptions of cognition can be seen in current research, including neural networks, connectionist models, and parallel distributed processing models (Rogers & McClelland, 2004 ).

Gestalt Psychology

The Gestalt approach to problem solving developed in the 1930s and 1940s as a counterbalance to the associationist approach. According to the Gestalt approach, cognitive representations consist of coherent structures (rather than individual associations) and the cognitive process of problem solving involves building a coherent structure (rather than strengthening and weakening of associations). For example, in a classic study, Kohler ( 1925 ) placed a hungry ape in a play yard that contained several empty shipping crates and a banana attached overhead but out of reach. Based on observing the ape in this situation, Kohler noted that the ape did not randomly try responses until one worked—as suggested by Thorndike’s associationist view. Instead, the ape stood under the banana, looked up at it, looked at the crates, and then in a flash of insight stacked the crates under the bananas as a ladder, and walked up the steps in order to reach the banana.

According to Kohler, the ape experienced a sudden visual reorganization in which the elements in the situation fit together in a way to solve the problem; that is, the crates could become a ladder that reduces the distance to the banana. Kohler referred to the underlying mechanism as insight —literally seeing into the structure of the situation. A major challenge of Gestalt theory is its lack of precision; for example, naming a process (i.e., insight) is not the same as explaining how it works. Gestalt conceptions can be seen in modern research on mental models and schemas (Gentner & Stevens, 1983 ).

Information Processing

The information processing approach to problem solving developed in the 1960s and 1970s and was based on the influence of the computer metaphor—the idea that humans are processors of information (Mayer, 2009 ). According to the information processing approach, problem solving involves a series of mental computations—each of which consists of applying a process to a mental representation (such as comparing two elements to determine whether they differ).

In their classic book, Human Problem Solving , Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) proposed that problem solving involved a problem space and search heuristics . A problem space is a mental representation of the initial state of the problem, the goal state of the problem, and all possible intervening states (based on applying allowable operators). Search heuristics are strategies for moving through the problem space from the given to the goal state. Newell and Simon focused on means-ends analysis , in which the problem solver continually sets goals and finds moves to accomplish goals.

Newell and Simon used computer simulation as a research method to test their conception of human problem solving. First, they asked human problem solvers to think aloud as they solved various problems such as logic problems, chess, and cryptarithmetic problems. Then, based on an information processing analysis, Newell and Simon created computer programs that solved these problems. In comparing the solution behavior of humans and computers, they found high similarity, suggesting that the computer programs were solving problems using the same thought processes as humans.

An important advantage of the information processing approach is that problem solving can be described with great clarity—as a computer program. An important limitation of the information processing approach is that it is most useful for describing problem solving for well-defined problems rather than ill-defined problems. The information processing conception of cognition lives on as a keystone of today’s cognitive science (Mayer, 2009 ).

Classic Issues in Problem Solving

Three classic issues in research on problem solving concern the nature of transfer (suggested by the associationist approach), the nature of insight (suggested by the Gestalt approach), and the role of problem-solving heuristics (suggested by the information processing approach).

Transfer refers to the effects of prior learning on new learning (or new problem solving). Positive transfer occurs when learning A helps someone learn B. Negative transfer occurs when learning A hinders someone from learning B. Neutral transfer occurs when learning A has no effect on learning B. Positive transfer is a central goal of education, but research shows that people often do not transfer what they learned to solving problems in new contexts (Mayer, 1992 ; Singley & Anderson, 1989 ).

Three conceptions of the mechanisms underlying transfer are specific transfer , general transfer , and specific transfer of general principles . Specific transfer refers to the idea that learning A will help someone learn B only if A and B have specific elements in common. For example, learning Spanish may help someone learn Latin because some of the vocabulary words are similar and the verb conjugation rules are similar. General transfer refers to the idea that learning A can help someone learn B even they have nothing specifically in common but A helps improve the learner’s mind in general. For example, learning Latin may help people learn “proper habits of mind” so they are better able to learn completely unrelated subjects as well. Specific transfer of general principles is the idea that learning A will help someone learn B if the same general principle or solution method is required for both even if the specific elements are different.

In a classic study, Thorndike and Woodworth ( 1901 ) found that students who learned Latin did not subsequently learn bookkeeping any better than students who had not learned Latin. They interpreted this finding as evidence for specific transfer—learning A did not transfer to learning B because A and B did not have specific elements in common. Modern research on problem-solving transfer continues to show that people often do not demonstrate general transfer (Mayer, 1992 ). However, it is possible to teach people a general strategy for solving a problem, so that when they see a new problem in a different context they are able to apply the strategy to the new problem (Judd, 1908 ; Mayer, 2008 )—so there is also research support for the idea of specific transfer of general principles.

Insight refers to a change in a problem solver’s mind from not knowing how to solve a problem to knowing how to solve it (Mayer, 1995 ; Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987 ). In short, where does the idea for a creative solution come from? A central goal of problem-solving research is to determine the mechanisms underlying insight.

The search for insight has led to five major (but not mutually exclusive) explanatory mechanisms—insight as completing a schema, insight as suddenly reorganizing visual information, insight as reformulation of a problem, insight as removing mental blocks, and insight as finding a problem analog (Mayer, 1995 ). Completing a schema is exemplified in a study by Selz (Fridja & de Groot, 1982 ), in which people were asked to think aloud as they solved word association problems such as “What is the superordinate for newspaper?” To solve the problem, people sometimes thought of a coordinate, such as “magazine,” and then searched for a superordinate category that subsumed both terms, such as “publication.” According to Selz, finding a solution involved building a schema that consisted of a superordinate and two subordinate categories.

Reorganizing visual information is reflected in Kohler’s ( 1925 ) study described in a previous section in which a hungry ape figured out how to stack boxes as a ladder to reach a banana hanging above. According to Kohler, the ape looked around the yard and found the solution in a flash of insight by mentally seeing how the parts could be rearranged to accomplish the goal.

Reformulating a problem is reflected in a classic study by Duncker ( 1945 ) in which people are asked to think aloud as they solve the tumor problem—how can you destroy a tumor in a patient without destroying surrounding healthy tissue by using rays that at sufficient intensity will destroy any tissue in their path? In analyzing the thinking-aloud protocols—that is, transcripts of what the problem solvers said—Duncker concluded that people reformulated the goal in various ways (e.g., avoid contact with healthy tissue, immunize healthy tissue, have ray be weak in healthy tissue) until they hit upon a productive formulation that led to the solution (i.e., concentrating many weak rays on the tumor).

Removing mental blocks is reflected in classic studies by Duncker ( 1945 ) in which solving a problem involved thinking of a novel use for an object, and by Luchins ( 1942 ) in which solving a problem involved not using a procedure that had worked well on previous problems. Finding a problem analog is reflected in classic research by Wertheimer ( 1959 ) in which learning to find the area of a parallelogram is supported by the insight that one could cut off the triangle on one side and place it on the other side to form a rectangle—so a parallelogram is really a rectangle in disguise. The search for insight along each of these five lines continues in current problem-solving research.

Heuristics are problem-solving strategies, that is, general approaches to how to solve problems. Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) suggested three general problem-solving heuristics for moving from a given state to a goal state: random trial and error , hill climbing , and means-ends analysis . Random trial and error involves randomly selecting a legal move and applying it to create a new problem state, and repeating that process until the goal state is reached. Random trial and error may work for simple problems but is not efficient for complex ones. Hill climbing involves selecting the legal move that moves the problem solver closer to the goal state. Hill climbing will not work for problems in which the problem solver must take a move that temporarily moves away from the goal as is required in many problems.

Means-ends analysis involves creating goals and seeking moves that can accomplish the goal. If a goal cannot be directly accomplished, a subgoal is created to remove one or more obstacles. Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) successfully used means-ends analysis as the search heuristic in a computer program aimed at general problem solving, that is, solving a diverse collection of problems. However, people may also use specific heuristics that are designed to work for specific problem-solving situations (Gigerenzer, Todd, & ABC Research Group, 1999 ; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984 ).

Current and Future Issues in Problem Solving

Eight current issues in problem solving involve decision making, intelligence and creativity, teaching of thinking skills, expert problem solving, analogical reasoning, mathematical and scientific problem solving, everyday thinking, and the cognitive neuroscience of problem solving.

Decision Making

Decision making refers to the cognitive processing involved in choosing between two or more alternatives (Baron, 2000 ; Markman & Medin, 2002 ). For example, a decision-making task may involve choosing between getting $240 for sure or having a 25% change of getting $1000. According to economic theories such as expected value theory, people should chose the second option, which is worth $250 (i.e., .25 x $1000) rather than the first option, which is worth $240 (1.00 x $240), but psychological research shows that most people prefer the first option (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984 ).

Research on decision making has generated three classes of theories (Markman & Medin, 2002 ): descriptive theories, such as prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky), which are based on the ideas that people prefer to overweight the cost of a loss and tend to overestimate small probabilities; heuristic theories, which are based on the idea that people use a collection of short-cut strategies such as the availability heuristic (Gigerenzer et al., 1999 ; Kahneman & Tversky, 2000 ); and constructive theories, such as mental accounting (Kahneman & Tversky, 2000 ), in which people build a narrative to justify their choices to themselves. Future research is needed to examine decision making in more realistic settings.

Intelligence and Creativity

Although researchers do not have complete consensus on the definition of intelligence (Sternberg, 1990 ), it is reasonable to view intelligence as the ability to learn or adapt to new situations. Fluid intelligence refers to the potential to solve problems without any relevant knowledge, whereas crystallized intelligence refers to the potential to solve problems based on relevant prior knowledge (Sternberg & Gregorenko, 2003 ). As people gain more experience in a field, their problem-solving performance depends more on crystallized intelligence (i.e., domain knowledge) than on fluid intelligence (i.e., general ability) (Sternberg & Gregorenko, 2003 ). The ability to monitor and manage one’s cognitive processing during problem solving—which can be called metacognition —is an important aspect of intelligence (Sternberg, 1990 ). Research is needed to pinpoint the knowledge that is needed to support intelligent performance on problem-solving tasks.

Creativity refers to the ability to generate ideas that are original (i.e., other people do not think of the same idea) and functional (i.e., the idea works; Sternberg, 1999 ). Creativity is often measured using tests of divergent thinking —that is, generating as many solutions as possible for a problem (Guilford, 1967 ). For example, the uses test asks people to list as many uses as they can think of for a brick. Creativity is different from intelligence, and it is at the heart of creative problem solving—generating a novel solution to a problem that the problem solver has never seen before. An important research question concerns whether creative problem solving depends on specific knowledge or creativity ability in general.

Teaching of Thinking Skills

How can people learn to be better problem solvers? Mayer ( 2008 ) proposes four questions concerning teaching of thinking skills:

What to teach —Successful programs attempt to teach small component skills (such as how to generate and evaluate hypotheses) rather than improve the mind as a single monolithic skill (Covington, Crutchfield, Davies, & Olton, 1974 ). How to teach —Successful programs focus on modeling the process of problem solving rather than solely reinforcing the product of problem solving (Bloom & Broder, 1950 ). Where to teach —Successful programs teach problem-solving skills within the specific context they will be used rather than within a general course on how to solve problems (Nickerson, 1999 ). When to teach —Successful programs teaching higher order skills early rather than waiting until lower order skills are completely mastered (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988 ).

Overall, research on teaching of thinking skills points to the domain specificity of problem solving; that is, successful problem solving depends on the problem solver having domain knowledge that is relevant to the problem-solving task.

Expert Problem Solving

Research on expertise is concerned with differences between how experts and novices solve problems (Ericsson, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006 ). Expertise can be defined in terms of time (e.g., 10 years of concentrated experience in a field), performance (e.g., earning a perfect score on an assessment), or recognition (e.g., receiving a Nobel Prize or becoming Grand Master in chess). For example, in classic research conducted in the 1940s, de Groot ( 1965 ) found that chess experts did not have better general memory than chess novices, but they did have better domain-specific memory for the arrangement of chess pieces on the board. Chase and Simon ( 1973 ) replicated this result in a better controlled experiment. An explanation is that experts have developed schemas that allow them to chunk collections of pieces into a single configuration.

In another landmark study, Larkin et al. ( 1980 ) compared how experts (e.g., physics professors) and novices (e.g., first-year physics students) solved textbook physics problems about motion. Experts tended to work forward from the given information to the goal, whereas novices tended to work backward from the goal to the givens using a means-ends analysis strategy. Experts tended to store their knowledge in an integrated way, whereas novices tended to store their knowledge in isolated fragments. In another study, Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser ( 1981 ) found that experts tended to focus on the underlying physics concepts (such as conservation of energy), whereas novices tended to focus on the surface features of the problem (such as inclined planes or springs). Overall, research on expertise is useful in pinpointing what experts know that is different from what novices know. An important theme is that experts rely on domain-specific knowledge rather than solely general cognitive ability.

Analogical Reasoning

Analogical reasoning occurs when people solve one problem by using their knowledge about another problem (Holyoak, 2005 ). For example, suppose a problem solver learns how to solve a problem in one context using one solution method and then is given a problem in another context that requires the same solution method. In this case, the problem solver must recognize that the new problem has structural similarity to the old problem (i.e., it may be solved by the same method), even though they do not have surface similarity (i.e., the cover stories are different). Three steps in analogical reasoning are recognizing —seeing that a new problem is similar to a previously solved problem; abstracting —finding the general method used to solve the old problem; and mapping —using that general method to solve the new problem.

Research on analogical reasoning shows that people often do not recognize that a new problem can be solved by the same method as a previously solved problem (Holyoak, 2005 ). However, research also shows that successful analogical transfer to a new problem is more likely when the problem solver has experience with two old problems that have the same underlying structural features (i.e., they are solved by the same principle) but different surface features (i.e., they have different cover stories) (Holyoak, 2005 ). This finding is consistent with the idea of specific transfer of general principles as described in the section on “Transfer.”

Mathematical and Scientific Problem Solving

Research on mathematical problem solving suggests that five kinds of knowledge are needed to solve arithmetic word problems (Mayer, 2008 ):

Factual knowledge —knowledge about the characteristics of problem elements, such as knowing that there are 100 cents in a dollar Schematic knowledge —knowledge of problem types, such as being able to recognize time-rate-distance problems Strategic knowledge —knowledge of general methods, such as how to break a problem into parts Procedural knowledge —knowledge of processes, such as how to carry our arithmetic operations Attitudinal knowledge —beliefs about one’s mathematical problem-solving ability, such as thinking, “I am good at this”

People generally possess adequate procedural knowledge but may have difficulty in solving mathematics problems because they lack factual, schematic, strategic, or attitudinal knowledge (Mayer, 2008 ). Research is needed to pinpoint the role of domain knowledge in mathematical problem solving.

Research on scientific problem solving shows that people harbor misconceptions, such as believing that a force is needed to keep an object in motion (McCloskey, 1983 ). Learning to solve science problems involves conceptual change, in which the problem solver comes to recognize that previous conceptions are wrong (Mayer, 2008 ). Students can be taught to engage in scientific reasoning such as hypothesis testing through direct instruction in how to control for variables (Chen & Klahr, 1999 ). A central theme of research on scientific problem solving concerns the role of domain knowledge.

Everyday Thinking

Everyday thinking refers to problem solving in the context of one’s life outside of school. For example, children who are street vendors tend to use different procedures for solving arithmetic problems when they are working on the streets than when they are in school (Nunes, Schlieman, & Carraher, 1993 ). This line of research highlights the role of situated cognition —the idea that thinking always is shaped by the physical and social context in which it occurs (Robbins & Aydede, 2009 ). Research is needed to determine how people solve problems in authentic contexts.

Cognitive Neuroscience of Problem Solving

The cognitive neuroscience of problem solving is concerned with the brain activity that occurs during problem solving. For example, using fMRI brain imaging methodology, Goel ( 2005 ) found that people used the language areas of the brain to solve logical reasoning problems presented in sentences (e.g., “All dogs are pets…”) and used the spatial areas of the brain to solve logical reasoning problems presented in abstract letters (e.g., “All D are P…”). Cognitive neuroscience holds the potential to make unique contributions to the study of problem solving.

Problem solving has always been a topic at the fringe of cognitive psychology—too complicated to study intensively but too important to completely ignore. Problem solving—especially in realistic environments—is messy in comparison to studying elementary processes in cognition. The field remains fragmented in the sense that topics such as decision making, reasoning, intelligence, expertise, mathematical problem solving, everyday thinking, and the like are considered to be separate topics, each with its own separate literature. Yet some recurring themes are the role of domain-specific knowledge in problem solving and the advantages of studying problem solving in authentic contexts.

Future Directions

Some important issues for future research include the three classic issues examined in this chapter—the nature of problem-solving transfer (i.e., How are people able to use what they know about previous problem solving to help them in new problem solving?), the nature of insight (e.g., What is the mechanism by which a creative solution is constructed?), and heuristics (e.g., What are some teachable strategies for problem solving?). In addition, future research in problem solving should continue to pinpoint the role of domain-specific knowledge in problem solving, the nature of cognitive ability in problem solving, how to help people develop proficiency in solving problems, and how to provide aids for problem solving.

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Further Reading

Baron, J. ( 2008 ). Thinking and deciding (4th ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Duncker, K. ( 1945 ). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs , 58(3) (Whole No. 270).

Holyoak, K. J. , & Morrison, R. G. ( 2005 ). The Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. , & Wittrock, M. C. ( 2006 ). Problem solving. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 287–304). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sternberg, R. J. , & Ben-Zeev, T. ( 2001 ). Complex cognition: The psychology of human thought . New York: Oxford University Press.

Weisberg, R. W. ( 2006 ). Creativity . New York: Wiley.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

problem solving role definition

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

problem solving role definition

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Problem-Solving Therapy Techniques

How effective is problem-solving therapy, things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

At a Glance

Problem-solving therapy is a short-term treatment used to help people who are experiencing depression, stress, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems develop the tools they need to deal with challenges. This approach teaches people to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement those solutions. Let's take a closer look at how problem-solving therapy can help people be more resilient and adaptive in the face of stress.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

Key Components

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

Planful Problem-Solving

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other Techniques

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses life stress issues and focuses on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with various psychological and physiological symptoms.

Mental Health Issues

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Specific Life Challenges

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the issues you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

Problem-solving therapy can help people feel more empowered to deal with the problems they face in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed when stressors begin to take a toll, this therapy introduces new coping skills that can boost self-efficacy and resilience .

Other Types of Therapy

Other similar types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) . While these therapies work to change thinking and behaviors, they work a bit differently. Both CBT and SFBT are less structured than problem-solving therapy and may focus on broader issues. CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts, and SFBT works to help people look for solutions and build self-efficacy based on strengths.

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to address clinical depression specifically. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy .

Keep In Mind

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Get Help Now

We've tried, tested, and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, BetterHelp, and ReGain. Find out which option is the best for you.

Shang P, Cao X, You S, Feng X, Li N, Jia Y. Problem-solving therapy for major depressive disorders in older adults: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials .  Aging Clin Exp Res . 2021;33(6):1465-1475. doi:10.1007/s40520-020-01672-3

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Owens D, Wright-Hughes A, Graham L, et al. Problem-solving therapy rather than treatment as usual for adults after self-harm: a pragmatic, feasibility, randomised controlled trial (the MIDSHIPS trial) .  Pilot Feasibility Stud . 2020;6:119. doi:10.1186/s40814-020-00668-0

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46. doi:doi.org/10.1186/s13011-015-0042-1

Margolis SA, Osborne P, Gonzalez JS. Problem solving . In: Gellman MD, ed. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine . Springer International Publishing; 2020:1745-1747. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39903-0_208

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Noyes K, Zapf AL, Depner RM, et al. Problem-solving skills training in adult cancer survivors: Bright IDEAS-AC pilot study .  Cancer Treat Res Commun . 2022;31:100552. doi:10.1016/j.ctarc.2022.100552

Albert SM, King J, Anderson S, et al. Depression agency-based collaborative: effect of problem-solving therapy on risk of common mental disorders in older adults with home care needs . The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry . 2019;27(6):619-624. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2019.01.002

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

What is decision making?

Signpost with three blank signs on sky backgrounds

Decisions, decisions. When was the last time you struggled with a choice? Maybe it was this morning, when you decided to hit the snooze button—again. Perhaps it was at a restaurant, with a miles-long menu and the server standing over you. Or maybe it was when you left your closet in a shambles after trying on seven different outfits before a big presentation. Often, making a decision—even a seemingly simple one—can be difficult. And people will go to great lengths—and pay serious sums of money—to avoid having to make a choice. The expensive tasting menu at the restaurant, for example. Or limiting your closet choices to black turtlenecks, à la Steve Jobs.

Get to know and directly engage with senior McKinsey experts on decision making

Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office, Eileen Kelly Rinaudo  is McKinsey’s global director of advancing women executives and is based in the New York office, Frithjof Lund is a senior partner in the Oslo office, and Leigh Weiss is a senior adviser in the Boston office.

If you’ve ever wrestled with a decision at work, you’re definitely not alone. According to McKinsey research, executives spend a significant portion of their time— nearly 40 percent , on average—making decisions. Worse, they believe most of that time is poorly used. People struggle with decisions so much so that we actually get exhausted from having to decide too much, a phenomenon called decision fatigue.

But decision fatigue isn’t the only cost of ineffective decision making. According to a McKinsey survey of more than 1,200 global business leaders, inefficient decision making costs a typical Fortune 500 company 530,000 days  of managers’ time each year, equivalent to about $250 million in annual wages. That’s a lot of turtlenecks.

How can business leaders ease the burden of decision making and put this time and money to better use? Read on to learn the ins and outs of smart decision making—and how to put it to work.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice .

How can organizations untangle ineffective decision-making processes?

McKinsey research has shown that agile is the ultimate solution for many organizations looking to streamline their decision making . Agile organizations are more likely to put decision making in the right hands, are faster at reacting to (or anticipating) shifts in the business environment, and often attract top talent who prefer working at companies with greater empowerment and fewer layers of management.

For organizations looking to become more agile, it’s possible to quickly boost decision-making efficiency by categorizing the type of decision to be made and adjusting the approach accordingly. In the next section, we review three types of decision making and how to optimize the process for each.

What are three keys to faster, better decisions?

Business leaders today have access to more sophisticated data than ever before. But it hasn’t necessarily made decision making any easier. For one thing, organizational dynamics—such as unclear roles, overreliance on consensus, and death by committee—can get in the way of straightforward decision making. And more data often means more decisions to be taken, which can become too much for one person, team, or department. This can make it more difficult for leaders to cleanly delegate, which in turn can lead to a decline in productivity.

Leaders are growing increasingly frustrated with broken decision-making processes, slow deliberations, and uneven decision-making outcomes. Fewer than half  of the 1,200 respondents of a McKinsey survey report that decisions are timely, and 61 percent say that at least half the time they spend making decisions is ineffective.

What’s the solution? According to McKinsey research, effective solutions center around categorizing decision types and organizing different processes to support each type. Further, each decision category should be assigned its own practice—stimulating debate, for example, or empowering employees—to yield improvements in effectiveness.

Here are the three decision categories  that matter most to senior leaders, and the standout practice that makes the biggest difference for each type of decision.

  • Big-bet decisions are infrequent but high risk, such as acquisitions. These decisions carry the potential to shape the future of the company, and as a result are generally made by top leaders and the board. Spurring productive debate by assigning someone to argue the case for and against a potential decision can improve big-bet decision making.
  • Cross-cutting decisions, such as pricing, can be frequent and high risk. These are usually made by business unit heads, in cross-functional forums as part of a collaborative process. These types of decisions can be improved by doubling down on process refinement. The ideal process should be one that helps clarify objectives, measures, and targets.
  • Delegated decisions are frequent but low risk and are handled by an individual or working team with some input from others. Delegated decision making can be improved by ensuring that the responsibility for the decision is firmly in the hands of those closest to the work. This approach also enhances engagement and accountability.

In addition, business leaders can take the following four actions to help sustain rapid decision making :

  • Focus on the game-changing decisions, ones that will help an organization create value and serve its purpose.
  • Convene only necessary meetings, and eliminate lengthy reports. Turn unnecessary meetings into emails, and watch productivity bloom. For necessary meetings, provide short, well-prepared prereads to aid in decision making.
  • Clarify the roles of decision makers and other voices. Who has a vote, and who has a voice?
  • Push decision-making authority to the front line—and tolerate mistakes.

Circular, white maze filled with white semicircles.

Introducing McKinsey Explainers : Direct answers to complex questions

How can business leaders effectively delegate decision making.

Business is more complex and dynamic than ever, meaning business leaders are faced with needing to make more decisions in less time. Decision making takes up an inordinate amount of management’s time—up to 70 percent for some executives—which leads to inefficiencies and opportunity costs.

As discussed above, organizations should treat different types of decisions differently . Decisions should be classified  according to their frequency, risk, and importance. Delegated decisions are the most mysterious for many organizations: they are the most frequent, and yet the least understood. Only about a quarter of survey respondents  report that their organizations make high-quality and speedy delegated decisions. And yet delegated decisions, because they happen so often, can have a big impact on organizational culture.

The key to better delegated decisions is to empower employees by giving them the authority and confidence to act. That means not simply telling employees which decisions they can or can’t make; it means giving employees the tools they need to make high-quality decisions and the right level of guidance as they do so.

Here’s how to support delegation and employee empowerment:

  • Ensure that your organization has a well-defined, universally understood strategy. When the strategic intent of an organization is clear, empowerment is much easier because it allows teams to pull in the same direction.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities. At the foundation of all empowerment efforts is a clear understanding of who is responsible for what, including who has input and who doesn’t.
  • Invest in capability building (and coaching) up front. To help managers spend meaningful coaching time, organizations should also invest in managers’ leadership skills.
  • Build an empowerment-oriented culture. Leaders should role model mindsets that promote empowerment, and managers should build the coaching skills they want to see. Managers and employees, in particular, will need to get comfortable with failure as a necessary step to success.
  • Decide when to get involved. Managers should spend effort up front to decide what is worth their focused attention. They should know when it’s appropriate to provide close guidance and when not to.

How can you guard against bias in decision making?

Cognitive bias is real. We all fall prey, no matter how we try to guard ourselves against it. And cognitive and organizational bias undermines good decision making, whether you’re choosing what to have for lunch or whether to put in a bid to acquire another company.

Here are some of the most common cognitive biases and strategies for how to avoid them:

  • Confirmation bias. Often, when we already believe something, our minds seek out information to support that belief—whether or not it is actually true. Confirmation bias  involves overweighting evidence that supports our belief, underweighting evidence against our belief, or even failing to search impartially for evidence in the first place. Confirmation bias is one of the most common traps organizational decision makers fall into. One famous—and painful—example of confirmation bias is when Blockbuster passed up the opportunity  to buy a fledgling Netflix for $50 million in 2000. (Actually, that’s putting it politely. Netflix executives remember being “laughed out” of Blockbuster’s offices.) Fresh off the dot-com bubble burst of 2000, Blockbuster executives likely concluded that Netflix had approached them out of desperation—not that Netflix actually had a baby unicorn on its hands.
  • Herd mentality. First observed by Charles Mackay in his 1841 study of crowd psychology, herd mentality happens when information that’s available to the group is determined to be more useful than privately held knowledge. Individuals buy into this bias because there’s safety in the herd. But ignoring competing viewpoints might ultimately be costly. To counter this, try a teardown exercise , wherein two teams use scenarios, advanced analytics, and role-playing to identify how a herd might react to a decision, and to ensure they can refute public perceptions.
  • Sunk-cost fallacy. Executives frequently hold onto underperforming business units or projects because of emotional or legacy attachment . Equally, business leaders hate shutting projects down . This, researchers say, is due to the ingrained belief that if everyone works hard enough, anything can be turned into gold. McKinsey research indicates two techniques for understanding when to hold on and when to let go. First, change the burden of proof from why an asset should be cut to why it should be retained. Next, categorize business investments according to whether they should be grown, maintained, or disposed of—and follow clearly differentiated investment rules  for each group.
  • Ignoring unpleasant information. Researchers call this the “ostrich effect”—when people figuratively bury their heads in the sand , ignoring information that will make their lives more difficult. One study, for example, found that investors were more likely to check the value of their portfolios when the markets overall were rising, and less likely to do so when the markets were flat or falling. One way to help get around this is to engage in a readout process, where individuals or teams summarize discussions as they happen. This increases the likelihood that everyone leaves a meeting with the same understanding of what was said.
  • Halo effect. Important personal and professional choices are frequently affected by people’s tendency to make specific judgments based on general impressions . Humans are tempted to use simple mental frames to understand complicated ideas, which means we frequently draw conclusions faster than we should. The halo effect is particularly common in hiring decisions. To avoid this bias, structured interviews can help mitigate the essentializing tendency. When candidates are measured against indicators, intuition is less likely to play a role.

For more common biases and how to beat them, check out McKinsey’s Bias Busters Collection .

Learn more about Strategy & Corporate Finance consulting  at McKinsey—and check out job opportunities related to decision making if you’re interested in working at McKinsey.

Articles referenced include:

  • “ Bias busters: When the crowd isn’t necessarily wise ,” McKinsey Quarterly , May 23, 2022, Eileen Kelly Rinaudo , Tim Koller , and Derek Schatz
  • “ Boards and decision making ,” April 8, 2021, Aaron De Smet , Frithjof Lund , Suzanne Nimocks, and Leigh Weiss
  • “ To unlock better decision making, plan better meetings ,” November 9, 2020, Aaron De Smet , Simon London, and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Reimagine decision making to improve speed and quality ,” September 14, 2020, Julie Hughes , J. R. Maxwell , and Leigh Weiss
  • “ For smarter decisions, empower your employees ,” September 9, 2020, Aaron De Smet , Caitlin Hewes, and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Bias busters: Lifting your head from the sand ,” McKinsey Quarterly , August 18, 2020, Eileen Kelly Rinaudo
  • “ Decision making in uncertain times ,” March 24, 2020, Andrea Alexander, Aaron De Smet , and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Bias busters: Avoiding snap judgments ,” McKinsey Quarterly , November 6, 2019, Tim Koller , Dan Lovallo, and Phil Rosenzweig
  • “ Three keys to faster, better decisions ,” McKinsey Quarterly , May 1, 2019, Aaron De Smet , Gregor Jost , and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Decision making in the age of urgency ,” April 30, 2019, Iskandar Aminov, Aaron De Smet , Gregor Jost , and David Mendelsohn
  • “ Bias busters: Pruning projects proactively ,” McKinsey Quarterly , February 6, 2019, Tim Koller , Dan Lovallo, and Zane Williams
  • “ Decision making in your organization: Cutting through the clutter ,” McKinsey Quarterly , January 16, 2018, Aaron De Smet , Simon London, and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Untangling your organization’s decision making ,” McKinsey Quarterly , June 21, 2017, Aaron De Smet , Gerald Lackey, and Leigh Weiss
  • “ Are you ready to decide? ,” McKinsey Quarterly , April 1, 2015, Philip Meissner, Olivier Sibony, and Torsten Wulf.

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  • June 3, 2024   •   32:07 How Trump’s Conviction Could Reshape the Election
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How Trump’s Conviction Could Reshape the Election

The guilty verdict in his manhattan criminal trial is set to become a key piece in the 2024 campaign..

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Last week, Donald J. Trump became the first U.S. former president to be convicted of a crime when a jury found that he had falsified business records to conceal a sex scandal.

Nate Cohn, who is the chief political analyst at The Times, Maggie Haberman, a senior political correspondent, and Reid J. Epstein, who also covers politics, discuss how the conviction might shape the remaining months of the presidential race.

On today’s episode

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Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent reporting on the 2024 presidential campaign, down ballot races across the country and the investigations into former President Donald J. Trump. More about Maggie Haberman

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  1. What is Problem Solving? Steps, Process & Techniques

    Finding a suitable solution for issues can be accomplished by following the basic four-step problem-solving process and methodology outlined below. Step. Characteristics. 1. Define the problem. Differentiate fact from opinion. Specify underlying causes. Consult each faction involved for information. State the problem specifically.

  2. What Are Problem-Solving Skills? Definition and Examples

    Problem-solving skills are the ability to identify problems, brainstorm and analyze answers, and implement the best solutions. An employee with good problem-solving skills is both a self-starter and a collaborative teammate; they are proactive in understanding the root of a problem and work with others to consider a wide range of solutions ...

  3. The Problem-Solving Process

    Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue. The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything ...

  4. What Are Problem-Solving Skills? Definitions and Examples

    Communication. Decision-making. Team-building. Problem-solving skills are important in every career at every level. As a result, effective problem-solving may also require industry or job-specific technical skills. For example, a registered nurse will need active listening and communication skills when interacting with patients but will also ...

  5. Why Problem-Solving Skills Are Essential for Leaders

    4 Problem-Solving Skills All Leaders Need. 1. Problem Framing. One key skill for any leader is framing problems in a way that makes sense for their organization. Problem framing is defined in Design Thinking and Innovation as determining the scope, context, and perspective of the problem you're trying to solve.

  6. What Are Problem-Solving Skills? (Definition, Examples, And ...

    Problem-solving skills include analysis, creativity, prioritization, organization, and troubleshooting. To solve a problem, you need to use a variety of skills based on the needs of the situation. Most jobs essentially boil down to identifying and solving problems consistently and effectively. That's why employers value problem-solving skills ...

  7. What Is Problem Solving?

    The first step in solving a problem is understanding what that problem actually is. You need to be sure that you're dealing with the real problem - not its symptoms. For example, if performance in your department is substandard, you might think that the problem lies with the individuals submitting work. However, if you look a bit deeper, the ...

  8. Problem solving

    Problem solving is the process of achieving a goal by overcoming obstacles, a frequent part of most activities. Problems in need of solutions range from simple personal tasks (e.g. how to turn on an appliance) to complex issues in business and technical fields. ... Researchers have focused on the role of emotions in problem solving ...

  9. Problem-solving skills: definitions and examples

    Problem-solving skills are skills that enable people to handle unexpected situations or difficult challenges at work. Organisations need people who can accurately assess problems and come up with effective solutions. In this article, we explain what problem-solving skills are, provide some examples of these skills and outline how to improve them.

  10. Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

    Problem-solving is a vital skill for coping with various challenges in life. This webpage explains the different strategies and obstacles that can affect how you solve problems, and offers tips on how to improve your problem-solving skills. Learn how to identify, analyze, and overcome problems with Verywell Mind.

  11. Problem-solving in Leadership: How to Master the 5 Key Skills

    The Role of Problem-Solving in Enhancing Team Morale Problem-solving is a critical leadership skill that can make you a better leader. Influential leaders with solid problem-solving skills can analyze and solve problems efficiently, increasing team productivity and job satisfaction. In addition, creating a psychologically safe environment ...

  12. 35 problem-solving techniques and methods for solving complex problems

    Problem Definition #problem solving #idea generation #creativity #online #remote-friendly . ... By supporting the discussion of several problems at once and by shifting team roles throughout, this problem-solving technique is a dynamic way of finding the best solution.

  13. Problem Solving

    Problem solving is the process of articulating solutions to problems. Problems have two critical attributes. First, a problem is an unknown in some context. That is, there is a situation in which there is something that is unknown (the difference between a goal state and a current state). Those situations vary from algorithmic math problems to ...

  14. 7 Problem-Solving Skills That Can Help You Be a More ...

    Although problem-solving is a skill in its own right, a subset of seven skills can help make the process of problem-solving easier. These include analysis, communication, emotional intelligence, resilience, creativity, adaptability, and teamwork. 1. Analysis. As a manager, you'll solve each problem by assessing the situation first.

  15. What is Problem Solving? An Introduction

    As you can see, problem solving plays a pivotal role in software engineering. Far from being an occasional requirement, it is the lifeblood that drives development forward, catalyzes innovation, and delivers of quality software. By leveraging problem-solving techniques, software engineers employ a powerful suite of strategies to overcome ...

  16. Problem-solving Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of PROBLEM-SOLVING is the process or act of finding a solution to a problem. How to use problem-solving in a sentence. ... citing its role in refining problem-solving abilities. ... Post the Definition of problem-solving to Facebook Facebook. Share the Definition of problem-solving on Twitter Twitter.

  17. (PDF) Theory of Problem Solving

    inconsistency" of the situation; the problem solving consists of the removal of the conflict and the finding. of the desired object. b) a disorder in the objective situation or in the structure of ...

  18. Problem Solving as a Manager: Definition and Tips

    How to solve problems as a manager. Consider these steps to help you solve problems as a manager in your workplace: 1. Define the problem. You must first identify what the problem is by talking to colleagues, conducting research and using your observational skills. Once you understand the challenge you want to overcome, try to define it as ...

  19. Problem Management Roles and Responsibilities

    The problem owner manages the overall process for a specific problem. They coordinate and direct all facets of the problem management effort, including bringing the right teams, tools, and information together. The problem manager may also delegate subtasks to other team members as they see fit. Also called: Problem owner, Major Incident Manager.

  20. Problem Solving

    Problem solving refers to cognitive processing directed at achieving a goal when the problem solver does not initially know a solution method. A problem exists when someone has a goal but does not know how to achieve it. Problems can be classified as routine or nonroutine, and as well defined or ill defined.

  21. How to master the seven-step problem-solving process

    When we do problem definition well in classic problem solving, we are demonstrating the kind of empathy, at the very beginning of our problem, that design thinking asks us to approach. When we ideate—and that's very similar to the disaggregation, prioritization, and work-planning steps—we do precisely the same thing, and often we use ...

  22. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness. Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression ...

  23. PDF Problem Solving: Definition, Role, and Pedagogy

    We discussed and attempted to come to a definition of a Ĭgoodĭ problem (specifically in educational contexts), and a definition of Ĭproblem solvingĭ. We discussed the role of problem solving in K-12 classrooms, especially problem solving as a method of teaching rather than a specific topic to teach in the curriculum.

  24. What is decision making?

    Get to know and directly engage with senior McKinsey experts on decision making. Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in McKinsey's New Jersey office, Eileen Kelly Rinaudo is McKinsey's global director of advancing women executives and is based in the New York office, Frithjof Lund is a senior partner in the Oslo office, and Leigh Weiss is a senior adviser in the Boston office.

  25. The CFO's changing role: problem-solving, tech and leadership

    The CFO's guide to best practices in 2024. Her view of the rapidly changing role matches the findings of her company's current research report, " Secrets of Successful CFOs ," where 96% of those surveyed believe the role will change in the next three years, and 89% have seen their job evolve even from a year ago. Jacqui Cartin. Courtesy ...

  26. Master Problem Solving in Your Facilitation Role

    As a facilitator, guide the group through evaluating options against the set objectives. Encourage participants to weigh the pros and cons of each solution, considering feasibility, impact, and ...

  27. Boost Your Career: Show Problem-Solving for Promotion

    Here's how you can demonstrate problem-solving skills and sound decision-making in your current role. Powered by AI and the LinkedIn community. 1. Identify Issues. 2. Propose Solutions. Be the ...

  28. Applied Sciences

    Doing business in the age of information abundance indicates the importance of developing information management skills, enabling the individuals to be more productive but also more flexible to changes. In literature, innovation, as a driver of a firm's performance, has been highlighted, while problem-solving capabilities are considered one of the key assumptions for the implementation of ...

  29. How Trump's Conviction Could Reshape the Election

    Last week, Donald J. Trump became the first U.S. former president to be convicted of a crime when a jury found that he had falsified business records to conceal a sex scandal. Maggie Haberman, a ...

  30. The role of motivational profiles in learning problem-solving and self

    In the current study, we examine the role of situation-specific motivational profiles in the effectiveness of video modeling examples for learning problem-solving and self-assessment accuracy in the domain of biology. A sample of 342 secondary school students participated in our study. Latent profile analysis resulted in four motivational profiles: (a) good-quality profile (high autonomous ...