4 Tips for Improving Your Problem Solving Ability

Humans are natural problem-solvers: we have evolved by adapting and surviving in virtually every climate and condition on earth. In fact, as David Attenborough points out, every plant and animal is a solution to the problem of how to survive.

Given this promising problem solving pedigree, is there anything we can do to enhance and improve our ability to solve problems? The answer is a resounding Yes; here are four tips to show you how…

1. Clearly define the problem

Defining a problem clearly goes a long way towards solving it. This is because problems are often nebulous and multi-faceted, and our objectives are wont to slide around. We are prone to toggle between different objectives and aspects of the problem without getting a real handle on it.

The first priority then is to clarify and unpack the situation and formulate the problem as clearly as possible.

To be solved, many problems have to be framed and – and possibly re-framed – a number of times. Don’t be concerned if this takes longer or is more complex than first thought: this is all part-and-parcel of problem solving.

For example, if an organisation’s staff are struggling to deal with the high-volume of work, this could be framed as:

  • not enough staff for the job
  • the wrong staff for the job
  • the wrong skills for the job, or
  • too much work.

If it’s not clear which of these is on the mark, they should all be stated as possible elements of the problem.

Simply identifying and framing a problem can trigger a valuable thought process or investigation of causes which contributes to the problem being solved innovatively, powerfully and comprehensively.

Airing a problem and stating it clearly can have a valuable cathartic impact. And in an organisational context collaboratively scoping and defining the problem can have the happy side-effect of creating greater team spirit.

2. Don’t grasp at solutions too early in the process

As strange as it may sound, jumping straight to a solution can be one of the most counter-productive things you can do, especially if the problem isn’t properly identified.

In the example given above, the solutions for each of the stated problems might be, respectively:

  • putting on more staff
  • letting existing staff go and hiring new staff
  • training existing staff in new skills, or
  • evaluating the overall workload and being more selective about what work the organisation takes, and referring other work elsewhere.

Vastly different solutions!

Framing a problem a certain way points you down a certain path for a solution (eg. hiring staff versus skilling staff versus changing the staff mix). So you want to ensure that all the main possible solutions are covered off and your chances of heading in the wrong direction are minimised.

If various solutions emerge during the problem identification process capture them, but don’t give them further attention until you’ve finished framing and reframing the problem and are officially in solution-finding mode.

3. Use imagination

One afternoon in 1865, the German chemist August Kekule fell asleep and had a dream about a snake biting its own tail. When he awoke he had discovered the molecular structure of benzene, and had made one the most significant breakthroughs of modern organic chemistry.

The most powerful solutions seem to start their way from the edge of consciousness, and have to be caught and roped into a systematic problem solving process. Einstein made his breakthrough connecting space and time while sick in bed. And we’ve all had the experience of having a great idea in the shower or when we’re hanging out the washing.

Be open to wandering thoughts and daydreams: if you have a clearly defined problem (see point 1 above) you may just have a major solution within your grasp.

4. Do someing else; create a new context

Sometimes the way to open up a new solution is to go somewhere else or do something different.

How many times have we come out of a meeting that was stuck in a deadlock, gone for coffee or lunch, and then seen the problem in a different light … and found a possible solution?

Being in a different – and relaxed – context allows unconscious processes to come into play, where they can form part of the problem solving process.

This is actually related to point 3 above about using imagination in problem solving.

The ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes couldn’t work out how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown in order to ascertain whether it was made of pure gold or had been corrupted with silver. Obviously he couldn’t melt it down or beat it into a shape that enabled him to easily calculate its dimensions. When he got into his bath and noticed the bathwater rise he realised he could use the same means – the displacement of water – to calculate the volume of the crown. Eureka!

Doing something different (having a bath!) gave him a new context that provided the means to solve his problem.

You never know where a solution may come from, so it pays to be open to every possible source. The trick is to fuse imagination (unconscious processes and wandering thoughts) with intention (a clearly defined and scoped problem).

If you can do that you’ll be leveraging your innate and natural ability to solve problems.


 This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in the February 2010 issue of Training & Development in Australia

© Michael Carman 2010