How sharp are your thinking and problem-solving skills? If you are like most people, you hope to make a difference to your world. And if you are now – or soon will be – a member of just about any trade or profession, you will be asked to solve problems, usually on a daily basis, as part of your work. Unless you lead an exceptionally charmed life, your personal world will not be problem-free, either. So the ability to sort through problems and come up with workable solutions is likely to be a necessary, or at least highly desirable, skill throughout your working years and even more broadly, throughout your life.

But how comfortable are you that you can identify and define problems, generate alternatives, pick good solutions, implement them, and then evaluate how well they have worked? How confident are you in your ability to use techniques such as brainstorming to come up with unusual options, or options that will be used in a novel way? Even if you agree that it is important to have problem-solving skills, how much do you know about how to develop yours?

The reality is: If you inhabit a human body, you are already a problem-solver. You have already somehow, somewhere, shown the ability to evaluate information or situations, break these down into key components, consider various ways of approaching and resolving situations, and decide on a way forward. Depending on the problems we encounter, our problem-solving capabilities will require us to have analytical and lateral thinking ability, initiative, and persistence.

In this post, we define problem-solving, and look at its important role within the context of our personal and professional lives.

The definitions

Problem-solving is the process of overcoming difficulties or obstacles encountered in the attainment of a goal or objective (Edmund, n.d.). It can be considered as the act of defining a problem, determining the cause of the problem, identifying, prioritising, and selecting alternatives for a solution, and implementing a solution (Beecraft, Duffy, and Moran, 2003).

Analytical problem solving, then, is a means of viewing and ultimately resolving the problem from a systematic, logical perspective (Katchenka, 2008). An analytical approach is the use of an appropriate process to break a problem down into the smaller pieces necessary to solve it. Each piece becomes a smaller and easier problem to solve. A process is a repeatable series of steps to achieve a goal; to work, it must fit the problem and be used correctly (Thwink.org, 2014).

Creative problem solving is the mental process of searching for a new and novel solution to a problem. Ruth Noller, from the Creative Education Foundation (2016), is more specific about the process, referring to it as a “proven method for approaching a problem or a challenge in an imaginative and innovative way”. Breaking the phrase into its constituent parts, she goes further:

  • “Creative” involves “elements of newness, innovation, and novelty”;
  • “Problem” refers to “any situation that presents a challenge, offers an opportunity, or represents a troubling concern”
  • “Solving” is about “devising ways to answer, to meet, or to satisfy a situation by changing self or situation” (Noller, 2016).

Analytical and creative: A tale of two brains

Recent years have seen the proliferation of writings – and an explosion of understanding – about the different roles our two brain hemispheres seem to play in human learning and problem solving. Much has been made of how, in Western, developed nations, the kind of thinking deemed to be most critical for success is that of left-hemisphere thinking: that of logical, linear, and analytical thought applied to sequential tasks. It includes most outlined steps of the scientific method. Left-hemisphere thought processing is said to be organised, planned, and precise, as in the fields of language and mathematics.

Right-hemisphere thinking, conversely, is involved with intuition, synthesis, playfulness, creativity, and qualitative judgment. It tends to be more spontaneous, imaginative, and emotional than left-hemisphere thinking and often seems to happen holistically, outside of normal time-space, rather than linearly. Sadly, problem-solving on the basis of right-hemisphere processes has sometimes been considered as inferior. Creative fields such as art and music have traditionally been regarded as right-brain disciplines par excellence, but many innovators and inventors can attest to the right-brain-dominated “aha!” moments they had leading to a discovery in supposedly left-brain-dominated fields such as science and engineering.

Some researchers have found that, in fact, the most creative problem solvers are adept at using both hemispheres, easily switching from one to the other. Even if creative ideas originate in the right hemisphere, they usually need to be processed and interpreted by the left, so highly creative problem-solvers use both hemispheres well (Developing management skills, 2007).

Which side of your brain do you use the most? How do you know?

On the need for problem-solving skills

Are you clear on why problem-solving skills – of both the analytical and creative varieties – are so essential for today’s world? Through learning these processes, you equip yourself for maximal success in academic, professional, and personal arenas. Throughout the developed world, there is growing recognition that we live in a fast-changing global economy. Skilled thinkers and innovators are needed to solve problems in a range of contexts critical for the development of knowledge, understanding, and performance. By being able to engage with complex, authentic problem-solving, you use your content, or technical, knowledge, in innovative and creative ways. As a result, new possibilities emerge (Crebert, Patrick, Cragnolini, Smith, Worsfold, & Webb, 2011).

On a personal level, having strong problem-solving skills can make a huge difference to your career. Do you aspire to a management position? A fundamental part of every manager’s job – but also true for many other walks of life – is finding ways to solve the problems that crop up reliably, day after day. Being a confident problem-solver is important to success, as you know that you can rely on proven processes to solve problems quickly and effectively. Not knowing about problem-solving processes means that your solutions may be ineffective, or worse: you could get stuck and do nothing – with disastrous consequences (MindTools, 2016).

Problem-solving is a critical employability skill

Specifically considering organisations, we can identify the major impetus given problem-solving capability by organisations and also the Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations. A report commissioned by the latter (Ithaca Group, 2012) identified three clusters of skills which have come to be called employability skills. These are non-technical skills which play a significant part in contributing to an individual’s effective and successful participation in the workplace. Employability skills are also sometimes referred to as generic skills, capabilities, enabling skills, or key competencies. The three clusters identified were those of navigating the world of work, interacting with others, and “getting the work done”. This last category contained problem-solving skills. Have a look at all the aspects of problem-solving which enterprises (small, medium, and large) have identified as crucial to their success:

  • Developing creative, innovative solutions
  • Developing practical solutions
  • Showing independence and initiative in identifying problems and solving them
  • Solving problems in teams
  • Applying a range of strategies to problem-solving
  • Using mathematics (including budgeting and financial management) to solve problems
  • Applying problem-solving strategies across a range of areas
  • Testing assumptions, taking data and circumstances into account and
  • Resolving customer concerns in relation to complex project issues (Business Council of Australia and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2002, in Crebert et al, 2011)

As noted, it is important to be able to engage both analytical problem solving and creative problem solving. The type of problem you are trying to solve may determine which type of process you use more. Managers and others who must problem-solve daily probably use analytical processes more frequently, but being able to “think outside the box” as with creative problem solving could make the difference between success and failure for someone’s career.

This article was adapted from Campus College’s “Career Edge Program. This course is designed for those seeking to maximise their career opportunities and set themselves apart.

References

  • Beecraft, G.D., Duffy, G.L., & Warren, J.W. (2003). The executive guide to improvement and change. ASQ Quality Press. Excerpt retrieved on 14 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Crebert, G., Patrick, C.J., Cragnolini, V., Smith, C., Worsfolk, K., & Webb, F. (2011). Problem Solving Skills Toolkit, 2nd Ed. Griffith Institute for Higher Education. Retrieved on 13 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Developing management skills. (2007). Chapter 3: Solving problems analytically and creatively. Prentice-Hall. Retrieved on 19 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Edmund, N.W. (n.d.). The complete method of creative problem solving. Retrieved on 14 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Ithaca Group. (2012). Employability skills framework, Stage I, final report. Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations. Retrieved on 19 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Katchenka. (2008). What does it mean to have strong analytical and problem-solving skills? Yahoo Answers: Business and Finance. Retrieved on 14 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Noller, R. (2016). Creative problem-solving. Creative Education Foundation. Retrieved on 18 April from: hyperlink.
  • Thwink.org. (2014). What is an analytical approach? Thwink.org. Retrieved on 18 April, 2016, from: hyperlink.