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What is problem solving? And why is it important at work?

By: Leanne Armstrong

If there’s one thing you can count on as a business professional, it’s that you’ll never run short of new problems to solve! Thankfully, whether it includes handling difficult or unexpected situations in the workplace, or resolving complex organizational challenges, we all have the capacity to develop our business problem solving skills.

The best way to get better at tackling problems productively is to begin at the beginning. After all, the better you understand what problem solving is – and the significant role it plays in every organization – the easier you’ll find it to improve on problem solving skills in the workplace.

Let’s dive in!

Problem Solving 101

Problem-solving, in general, refers to the act of find solutions to difficult or complex issues. In the workplace, problem-solving includes a variety of tools, resources, and techniques to:

  • Identify what’s not working;
  • Figure out why it’s broken; and
  • Determine the best course of action to fix it.

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What is problem solving?

Whether you know them as obstacles, glitches, or setbacks, problems are a part of our everyday lives. The good news is that our brains excel at reasoning out intricate scenarios and making calculations in situations we’ve never experienced before. And that means every one of us is hard-wired to be an adept problem-solver.

The trick is to learn how to take that innate ability and apply it in a deliberate and practiced way.

A good problem-solving definition might be finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. In practice, however, solving problems in the workplace is a little more immersive than that.

It may, for example, include using a variety of tools, techniques, and resources to:

  • Identify what’s not working
  • Figure out why it’s broken, and
  • Determine the best course of action to fix it

One thing, however, is certain: successfully resolving business and workplace issues is essential. Not only does effective problem solving create value that encourages growth, it goes hand-in-hand with impactful decision making.

What are the benefits of problem solving in business?

Practically speaking, problem solving provides a golden opportunity to improve your processes, products, and systems – especially when you work through those challenges with others.

Learning to face difficulties calmly, and deal with them intentionally, can also:

  • Ramp up your confidence
  • Increase your resilience, and
  • Help you develop valuable critical thinking skills

Applying problem solving skills in the face of an obstacle that seems insurmountable trains you to shift your perspective and look at potential hurdles in a different way.

It also gets you used to examining multiple options for dealing with a problem, which can help you feel more confident in the direction you take.

Solving problems as a team

Business problem solving as a team offers an even wider range of benefits since active collaboration tends to make good things happen at both the individual and group level.

For example:

  • Team-based problem solving is akin to having a built-in sounding board when you explore new approaches and ideas.
  • As each team member’s critical thinking skills evolve, they bring fresh insights to the collective problem solving process, bearing out the old adage that many heads are better than one.
  • Solving problems as a team also reduces the feeling of personal risk and exposure that’s common when one person is tasked with solving a puzzle. When that same problem is shared, the sense of risk gets dispersed, and individual team members are less likely to feel singled out.

Not only is there less chance of arriving at an unreasonable or biased solution when you problem solve as a group, team members assigned to carry that solution out will feel more invested in its success.

Examples of problem solving skills in the workplace

Improving on your problem-solving skills helps you make the most of your brain’s natural capacity to analyze and reason things out.

There are dozens of problem-solving skills that play out in the average workplace – all of which can contribute to your ability to correct oversights, resolve conflict, and work around unexpected obstructions.

Here are a few common examples of problem solving skills in the workplace, and tips on how to improve them.

1. Data Gathering

Figuring out the cause of a problem hinges on collecting relevant data. Consulting efficiently with colleagues, conducting online research, and brainstorming with your team are all valuable data gathering skills.

2. Active Listening

As opposed to listening in a purely supportive or empathetic way, active listening involves concentrating fully on what the other person is saying so you can understand the content, respond accordingly, and remember what was said later.

3. Troubleshooting

The ability to analyze and troubleshoot a situation with the help of any data and human input you’ve gathered is essential for drilling down into the core of a problem, and scrutinizing potential solutions.

4. Brainstorming

Brainstorming has become synonymous with creative thinking, innovative idea generation, and problem solving. The more productive your brainstorming sessions, the more likely you and your group are to put together a list of quality, workable solutions.

It’s interesting to note that effective decision making is both a contributor to, and a by-product of, effective problem solving.

For example, honing your analytical abilities and other problem-solving skills will inevitably help you make better decisions. The more efficient your decision-making process becomes, meanwhile, the better you’ll get at uncovering and acting on the most promising solution to any dilemma.

A simple problem-solving scenario

It’s clear that we can all benefit from getting more comfortable with problem solving in the workplace. Examples of situations where your problem-solving skills will come in handy aren’t difficult to find, and might include:

  • Fixing a technical issue for your customer
  • Improving your student’s test performance
  • Reducing the theft of your in-store merchandise
  • Bumping up your marketing reach

But here’s the interesting thing. While it’s evident in each of these situations that there’s a problem to be solved, the exact nature of that problem isn’t so obvious.

In the student’s case, for example, you’d need additional input to help you figure out why they’re performing poorly. Only then would you be able to take steps to find the best-fit solution and achieve the desired learning outcome.

Here’s a simple scenario to help demonstrate that idea:

Bringing new customers onboard in a timely manner is an important part of your client relations strategy. Since hiring Alex a few weeks ago, however, your onboarding process has been taking longer than it should and team members are beginning to complain.

While you can see that the problem in this scenario is the fact that your team isn’t meeting their client onboarding goals, the key is to get clear on exactly what’s causing the hold-up.

You could jump to the conclusion that Alex has time management issues and that it’s time to start looking for a replacement. But since one of the most common mistakes in business problem solving is attempting to seize on a solution right away, that might cause you to waste time and resources on a remedy that ultimately proves unnecessary, or that doesn’t provide a viable fix.

Instead, it’s time to put your problem-solving skills to work.

Using data gathering and troubleshooting to pinpoint and clarify the bottleneck in your onboarding process – and active listening to interpret the situation from Alex’s perspective – you soon determine that the real cause of the problem is not what you thought.

In truth, an administrative oversight during the hiring process (yet another problem to be solved!) left Alex unaware of, and without access to, the business process map that’s so vital to efficiently onboarding new customers. Once you provide the necessary resources, it doesn’t take Alex long to get up to speed – and your client onboarding process to revert back to the well-oiled machine that it was.

Even with a team of eager problem-solvers by your side, the truth is that it’s often necessary to have the right problem solving tools in place to achieve your desired results. That’s where versatile mind mapping software can help.

Not only does MindManager provide a visual framework that fully supports the problem solving process, it improves comprehension, inspires more creative solutions, and boosts your ability to make the best possible decisions as you and your team expand your problem solving skills.

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