Introduction to Problem Solving Skills

What is problem solving and why is it important.

Defining problem solving skills

The ability to solve problems is a basic life skill and is essential to our day-to-day lives, at home, at school, and at work. We solve problems every day without really thinking about how we solve them. For example: it’s raining and you need to go to the store. What do you do? There are lots of possible solutions. Take your umbrella and walk. If you don't want to get wet, you can drive, or take the bus. You might decide to call a friend for a ride, or you might decide to go to the store another day. There is no right way to solve this problem and different people will solve it differently.

Problem solving is the process of identifying a problem, developing possible solution paths, and taking the appropriate course of action.

Why is problem solving important? Good problem solving skills empower you not only in your personal life but are critical in your professional life. In the current fast-changing global economy, employers often identify everyday problem solving as crucial to the success of their organizations. For employees, problem solving can be used to develop practical and creative solutions, and to show independence and initiative to employers.

Throughout this case study you will be asked to jot down your thoughts in idea logs. These idea logs are used for reflection on concepts and for answering short questions. When you click on the "Next" button, your responses will be saved for that page. If you happen to close the webpage, you will lose your work on the page you were on, but previous pages will be saved. At the end of the case study, click on the "Finish and Export to PDF" button to acknowledge completion of the case study and receive a PDF document of your idea logs.

What Does Problem Solving Look Like?

IDEAL heuristic strategy for problem solving

The ability to solve problems is a skill, and just like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you get. So how exactly do you practice problem solving? Learning about different problem solving strategies and when to use them will give you a good start. Problem solving is a process. Most strategies provide steps that help you identify the problem and choose the best solution. There are two basic types of strategies: algorithmic and heuristic.

Algorithmic strategies are traditional step-by-step guides to solving problems. They are great for solving math problems (in algebra: multiply and divide, then add or subtract) or for helping us remember the correct order of things (a mnemonic such as “Spring Forward, Fall Back” to remember which way the clock changes for daylight saving time, or “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” to remember what direction to turn bolts and screws). Algorithms are best when there is a single path to the correct solution.

But what do you do when there is no single solution for your problem? Heuristic methods are general guides used to identify possible solutions. A popular one that is easy to remember is IDEAL [ Bransford & Stein, 1993 ] :

  • I dentify the problem
  • D efine the context of the problem
  • E xplore possible strategies
  • A ct on best solution

IDEAL is just one problem solving strategy. Building a toolbox of problem solving strategies will improve your problem solving skills. With practice, you will be able to recognize and use multiple strategies to solve complex problems.

Watch the video

What is the best way to get a peanut out of a tube that cannot be moved? Watch a chimpanzee solve this problem in the video below [ Geert Stienissen, 2010 ].

[PDF transcript]

Describe the series of steps you think the chimpanzee used to solve this problem.

  • [Page 2: What does Problem Solving Look Like?] Describe the series of steps you think the chimpanzee used to solve this problem.

Think of an everyday problem you've encountered recently and describe your steps for solving it.

  • [Page 2: What does Problem Solving Look Like?] Think of an everyday problem you've encountered recently and describe your steps for solving it.

Developing Problem Solving Processes

Problem solving is a process that uses steps to solve problems. But what does that really mean? Let's break it down and start building our toolbox of problem solving strategies.

What is the first step of solving any problem? The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and identify the right cause of the problem. This may sound obvious, but similar problems can arise from different events, and the real issue may not always be apparent. To really solve the problem, it's important to find out what started it all. This is called identifying the root cause .

Example: You and your classmates have been working long hours on a project in the school's workshop. The next afternoon, you try to use your student ID card to access the workshop, but discover that your magnetic strip has been demagnetized. Since the card was a couple of years old, you chalk it up to wear and tear and get a new ID card. Later that same week you learn that several of your classmates had the same problem! After a little investigation, you discover that a strong magnet was stored underneath a workbench in the workshop. The magnet was the root cause of the demagnetized student ID cards.

The best way to identify the root cause of the problem is to ask questions and gather information. If you have a vague problem, investigating facts is more productive than guessing a solution. Ask yourself questions about the problem. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? When was the last time it worked correctly? What has changed since then? Can you diagram the process into separate steps? Where in the process is the problem occurring? Be curious, ask questions, gather facts, and make logical deductions rather than assumptions.

Watch Adam Savage from Mythbusters, describe his problem solving process [ ForaTv, 2010 ]. As you watch this section of the video, try to identify the questions he asks and the different strategies he uses.

Adam Savage shared many of his problem solving processes. List the ones you think are the five most important. Your list may be different from other people in your class—that's ok!

  • [Page 3: Developing Problem Solving Processes] Adam Savage shared many of his problem solving processes. List the ones you think are the five most important.

“The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer.” — Thomas J. Watson , founder of IBM

Voices From the Field: Solving Problems

In manufacturing facilities and machine shops, everyone on the floor is expected to know how to identify problems and find solutions. Today's employers look for the following skills in new employees: to analyze a problem logically, formulate a solution, and effectively communicate with others.

In this video, industry professionals share their own problem solving processes, the problem solving expectations of their employees, and an example of how a problem was solved.

Meet the Partners:

  • Taconic High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is a comprehensive, fully accredited high school with special programs in Health Technology, Manufacturing Technology, and Work-Based Learning.
  • Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, prepares its students with applied manufacturing technical skills, providing hands-on experience at industrial laboratories and manufacturing facilities, and instructing them in current technologies.
  • H.C. Starck in Newton, Massachusetts, specializes in processing and manufacturing technology metals, such as tungsten, niobium, and tantalum. In almost 100 years of experience, they hold over 900 patents, and continue to innovate and develop new products.
  • Nypro Healthcare in Devens, Massachusetts, specializes in precision injection-molded healthcare products. They are committed to good manufacturing processes including lean manufacturing and process validation.

Making Decisions

Now that you have a couple problem solving strategies in your toolbox, let's practice. In this exercise, you are given a scenario and you will be asked to decide what steps you would take to identify and solve the problem.

Scenario: You are a new employee and have just finished your training. As your first project, you have been assigned the milling of several additional components for a regular customer. Together, you and your trainer, Bill, set up for the first run. Checking your paperwork, you gather the tools and materials on the list. As you are mounting the materials on the table, you notice that you didn't grab everything and hurriedly grab a few more items from one of the bins. Once the material is secured on the CNC table, you load tools into the tool carousel in the order listed on the tool list and set the fixture offsets.

Bill tells you that since this is a rerun of a job several weeks ago, the CAD/CAM model has already been converted to CNC G-code. Bill helps you download the code to the CNC machine. He gives you the go-ahead and leaves to check on another employee. You decide to start your first run.

What problems did you observe in the video?

  • [Page 5: Making Decisions] What problems did you observe in the video?
  • What do you do next?
  • Try to fix it yourself.
  • Ask your trainer for help.

As you are cleaning up, you think about what happened and wonder why it happened. You try to create a mental picture of what happened. You are not exactly sure what the end mill hit, but it looked like it might have hit the dowel pin. You wonder if you grabbed the correct dowel pins from the bins earlier.

You can think of two possible next steps. You can recheck the dowel pin length to make sure it is the correct length, or do a dry run using the CNC single step or single block function with the spindle empty to determine what actually happened.

screenshot of cnc problem

  • Check the dowel pins.
  • Use the single step/single block function to determine what happened.

You notice that your trainer, Bill, is still on the floor and decide to ask him for help. You describe the problem to him. Bill asks if you know what the end mill ran into. You explain that you are not sure but you think it was the dowel pin. Bill reminds you that it is important to understand what happened so you can fix the correct problem. He suggests that you start all over again and begin with a dry run using the single step/single block function, with the spindle empty, to determine what it hit. Or, since it happened at the end, he mentions that you can also check the G-code to make sure the Z-axis is raised before returning to the home position.

ask help from a more experienced person

  • Run the single step/single block function.
  • Edit the G-code to raise the Z-axis.

You finish cleaning up and check the CNC for any damage. Luckily, everything looks good. You check your paperwork and gather the components and materials again. You look at the dowel pins you used earlier, and discover that they are not the right length. As you go to grab the correct dowel pins, you have to search though several bins. For the first time, you are aware of the mess - it looks like the dowel pins and other items have not been put into the correctly labeled bins. You spend 30 minutes straightening up the bins and looking for the correct dowel pins.

Finally finding them, you finish setting up. You load tools into the tool carousel in the order listed on the tool list and set the fixture offsets. Just to make sure, you use the CNC single step/single block function, to do a dry run of the part. Everything looks good! You are ready to create your first part. The first component is done, and, as you admire your success, you notice that the part feels hotter than it should.

You wonder why? You go over the steps of the process to mentally figure out what could be causing the residual heat. You wonder if there is a problem with the CNC's coolant system or if the problem is in the G-code.

  • Look at the G-code.

After thinking about the problem, you decide that maybe there's something wrong with the setup. First, you clean up the damaged materials and remove the broken tool. You check the CNC machine carefully for any damage. Luckily, everything looks good. It is time to start over again from the beginning.

You again check your paperwork and gather the tools and materials on the setup sheet. After securing the new materials, you use the CNC single step/single block function with the spindle empty, to do a dry run of the part. You watch carefully to see if you can figure out what happened. It looks to you like the spindle barely misses hitting the dowel pin. You determine that the end mill was broken when it hit the dowel pin while returning to the start position.

idea at cnc machine

After conducting a dry run using the single step/single block function, you determine that the end mill was damaged when it hit the dowel pin on its return to the home position. You discuss your options with Bill. Together, you decide the best thing to do would be to edit the G-code and raise the Z-axis before returning to home. You open the CNC control program and edit the G-code. Just to make sure, you use the CNC single step/single block function, to do another dry run of the part. You are ready to create your first part. It works. You first part is completed. Only four more to go.

software or hardware problem

As you are cleaning up, you notice that the components are hotter than you expect and the end mill looks more worn than it should be. It dawns on you that while you were milling the component, the coolant didn't turn on. You wonder if it is a software problem in the G-code or hardware problem with the CNC machine.

It's the end of the day and you decide to finish the rest of the components in the morning.

  • You decide to look at the G-code in the morning.
  • You leave a note on the machine, just in case.

You decide that the best thing to do would be to edit the G-code and raise the Z-axis of the spindle before it returns to home. You open the CNC control program and edit the G-code.

While editing the G-code to raise the Z-axis, you notice that the coolant is turned off at the beginning of the code and at the end of the code. The coolant command error caught your attention because your coworker, Mark, mentioned having a similar issue during lunch. You change the coolant command to turn the mist on.

  • You decide to talk with your supervisor.
  • You discuss what happened with a coworker over lunch.

As you reflect on the residual heat problem, you think about the machining process and the factors that could have caused the issue. You try to think of anything and everything that could be causing the issue. Are you using the correct tool for the specified material? Are you using the specified material? Is it running at the correct speed? Is there enough coolant? Are there chips getting in the way?

Wait, was the coolant turned on? As you replay what happened in your mind, you wonder why the coolant wasn't turned on. You decide to look at the G-code to find out what is going on.

From the milling machine computer, you open the CNC G-code. You notice that there are no coolant commands. You add them in and on the next run, the coolant mist turns on and the residual heat issues is gone. Now, its on to creating the rest of the parts.

Have you ever used brainstorming to solve a problem? Chances are, you've probably have, even if you didn't realize it.

You notice that your trainer, Bill, is on the floor and decide to ask him for help. You describe the problem with the end mill breaking, and how you discovered that items are not being returned to the correctly labeled bins. You think this caused you to grab the incorrect length dowel pins on your first run. You have sorted the bins and hope that the mess problem is fixed. You then go on to tell Bill about the residual heat issue with the completed part.

Together, you go to the milling machine. Bill shows you how to check the oil and coolant levels. Everything looks good at the machine level. Next, on the CNC computer, you open the CNC G-code. While looking at the code, Bill points out that there are no coolant commands. Bill adds them in and when you rerun the program, it works.

Bill is glad you mentioned the problem to him. You are the third worker to mention G-code issues over the last week. You noticed the coolant problems in your G-code, John noticed a Z-axis issue in his G-code, and Sam had issues with both the Z-axis and the coolant. Chances are, there is a bigger problem and Bill will need to investigate the root cause .

Talking with Bill, you discuss the best way to fix the problem. Bill suggests editing the G-code to raise the Z-axis of the spindle before it returns to its home position. You open the CNC control program and edit the G-code. Following the setup sheet, you re-setup the job and use the CNC single step/single block function, to do another dry run of the part. Everything looks good, so you run the job again and create the first part. It works. Since you need four of each component, you move on to creating the rest of them before cleaning up and leaving for the day.

It's a new day and you have new components to create. As you are setting up, you go in search of some short dowel pins. You discover that the bins are a mess and components have not been put away in the correctly labeled bins. You wonder if this was the cause of yesterday's problem. As you reorganize the bins and straighten up the mess, you decide to mention the mess issue to Bill in your afternoon meeting.

You describe the bin mess and using the incorrect length dowels to Bill. He is glad you mentioned the problem to him. You are not the first person to mention similar issues with tools and parts not being put away correctly. Chances are there is a bigger safety issue here that needs to be addressed in the next staff meeting.

In any workplace, following proper safety and cleanup procedures is always important. This is especially crucial in manufacturing where people are constantly working with heavy, costly and sometimes dangerous equipment. When issues and problems arise, it is important that they are addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Effective communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost, and save money.

You now know that the end mill was damaged when it hit the dowel pin. It seems to you that the easiest thing to do would be to edit the G-code and raise the Z-axis position of the spindle before it returns to the home position. You open the CNC control program and edit the G-code, raising the Z-axis. Starting over, you follow the setup sheet and re-setup the job. This time, you use the CNC single step/single block function, to do another dry run of the part. Everything looks good, so you run the job again and create the first part.

At the end of the day, you are reviewing your progress with your trainer, Bill. After you describe the day's events, he reminds you to always think about safety and the importance of following work procedures. He decides to bring the issue up in the next morning meeting as a reminder to everyone.

In any workplace, following proper procedures (especially those that involve safety) is always important. This is especially crucial in manufacturing where people are constantly working with heavy, costly, and sometimes dangerous equipment. When issues and problems arise, it is important that they are addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Effective communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost, and save money. One tool to improve communication is the morning meeting or huddle.

The next morning, you check the G-code to determine what is wrong with the coolant. You notice that the coolant is turned off at the beginning of the code and also at the end of the code. This is strange. You change the G-code to turn the coolant on at the beginning of the run and off at the end. This works and you create the rest of the parts.

Throughout the day, you keep wondering what caused the G-code error. At lunch, you mention the G-code error to your coworker, John. John is not surprised. He said that he encountered a similar problem earlier this week. You decide to talk with your supervisor the next time you see him.

You are in luck. You see your supervisor by the door getting ready to leave. You hurry over to talk with him. You start off by telling him about how you asked Bill for help. Then you tell him there was a problem and the end mill was damaged. You describe the coolant problem in the G-code. Oh, and by the way, John has seen a similar problem before.

Your supervisor doesn't seem overly concerned, errors happen. He tells you "Good job, I am glad you were able to fix the issue." You are not sure whether your supervisor understood your explanation of what happened or that it had happened before.

The challenge of communicating in the workplace is learning how to share your ideas and concerns. If you need to tell your supervisor that something is not going well, it is important to remember that timing, preparation, and attitude are extremely important.

It is the end of your shift, but you want to let the next shift know that the coolant didn't turn on. You do not see your trainer or supervisor around. You decide to leave a note for the next shift so they are aware of the possible coolant problem. You write a sticky note and leave it on the monitor of the CNC control system.

How effective do you think this solution was? Did it address the problem?

In this scenario, you discovered several problems with the G-code that need to be addressed. When issues and problems arise, it is important that they are addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Effective communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring and avoid injury to personnel. The challenge of communicating in the workplace is learning how and when to share your ideas and concerns. If you need to tell your co-workers or supervisor that there is a problem, it is important to remember that timing and the method of communication are extremely important.

You are able to fix the coolant problem in the G-code. While you are glad that the problem is fixed, you are worried about why it happened in the first place. It is important to remember that if a problem keeps reappearing, you may not be fixing the right problem. You may only be addressing the symptoms.

You decide to talk to your trainer. Bill is glad you mentioned the problem to him. You are the third worker to mention G-code issues over the last week. You noticed the coolant problems in your G-code, John noticed a Z-axis issue in his G-code, and Sam had issues with both the Z-axis and the coolant. Chances are, there is a bigger problem and Bill will need to investigate the root cause .

Over lunch, you ask your coworkers about the G-code problem and what may be causing the error. Several people mention having similar problems but do not know the cause.

You have now talked to three coworkers who have all experienced similar coolant G-code problems. You make a list of who had the problem, when they had the problem, and what each person told you.

When you see your supervisor later that afternoon, you are ready to talk with him. You describe the problem you had with your component and the damaged bit. You then go on to tell him about talking with Bill and discovering the G-code issue. You show him your notes on your coworkers' coolant issues, and explain that you think there might be a bigger problem.

You supervisor thanks you for your initiative in identifying this problem. It sounds like there is a bigger problem and he will need to investigate the root cause. He decides to call a team huddle to discuss the issue, gather more information, and talk with the team about the importance of communication.

Root Cause Analysis

flower root cause of a problem

Root cause analysis ( RCA ) is a method of problem solving that identifies the underlying causes of an issue. Root cause analysis helps people answer the question of why the problem occurred in the first place. RCA uses clear cut steps in its associated tools, like the "5 Whys Analysis" and the "Cause and Effect Diagram," to identify the origin of the problem, so that you can:

  • Determine what happened.
  • Determine why it happened.
  • Fix the problem so it won’t happen again.

RCA works under the idea that systems and events are connected. An action in one area triggers an action in another, and another, and so on. By tracing back these actions, you can discover where the problem started and how it developed into the problem you're now facing. Root cause analysis can prevent problems from recurring, reduce injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost and save money. There are many different RCA techniques available to determine the root cause of a problem. These are just a few:

  • Root Cause Analysis Tools
  • 5 Whys Analysis
  • Fishbone or Cause and Effect Diagram
  • Pareto Analysis

5 whys diagram root cause

How Huddles Work

group huddle discussion meeting

Communication is a vital part of any setting where people work together. Effective communication helps employees and managers form efficient teams. It builds trusts between employees and management, and reduces unnecessary competition because each employee knows how their part fits in the larger goal.

One tool that management can use to promote communication in the workplace is the huddle . Just like football players on the field, a huddle is a short meeting where everyone is standing in a circle. A daily team huddle ensures that team members are aware of changes to the schedule, reiterated problems and safety issues, and how their work impacts one another. When done right, huddles create collaboration, communication, and accountability to results. Impromptu huddles can be used to gather information on a specific issue and get each team member's input.

The most important thing to remember about huddles is that they are short, lasting no more than 10 minutes, and their purpose is to communicate and identify. In essence, a huddle’s purpose is to identify priorities, communicate essential information, and discover roadblocks to productivity.

Who uses huddles? Many industries and companies use daily huddles. At first thought, most people probably think of hospitals and their daily patient update meetings, but lots of managers use daily meetings to engage their employees. Here are a few examples:

  • Brian Scudamore, CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk? , uses the daily huddle as an operational tool to take the pulse of his employees and as a motivational tool. Watch a morning huddle meeting .
  • Fusion OEM, an outsourced manufacturing and production company. What do employees take away from the daily huddle meeting .
  • Biz-Group, a performance consulting group. Tips for a successful huddle .

Brainstorming

brainstorming small lightbulbs combined become a big idea

One tool that can be useful in problem solving is brainstorming . Brainstorming is a creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The method was first popularized in 1953 by Alex Faickney Osborn in the book Applied Imagination . The goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can in a fixed amount of time. Although brainstorming is best done in a group, it can be done individually. Like most problem solving techniques, brainstorming is a process.

  • Define a clear objective.
  • Have an agreed a time limit.
  • During the brainstorming session, write down everything that comes to mind, even if the idea sounds crazy.
  • If one idea leads to another, write down that idea too.
  • Combine and refine ideas into categories of solutions.
  • Assess and analyze each idea as a potential solution.

When used during problem solving, brainstorming can offer companies new ways of encouraging staff to think creatively and improve production. Brainstorming relies on team members' diverse experiences, adding to the richness of ideas explored. This means that you often find better solutions to the problems. Team members often welcome the opportunity to contribute ideas and can provide buy-in for the solution chosen—after all, they are more likely to be committed to an approach if they were involved in its development. What's more, because brainstorming is fun, it helps team members bond.

  • Watch Peggy Morgan Collins, a marketing executive at Power Curve Communications discuss How to Stimulate Effective Brainstorming .
  • Watch Kim Obbink, CEO of Filter Digital, a digital content company, and her team share their top five rules for How to Effectively Generate Ideas .

Importance of Good Communication and Problem Description

talking too much when describing a problem

Communication is one of the most frequent activities we engage in on a day-to-day basis. At some point, we have all felt that we did not effectively communicate an idea as we would have liked. The key to effective communication is preparation. Rather than attempting to haphazardly improvise something, take a few minutes and think about what you want say and how you will say it. If necessary, write yourself a note with the key points or ideas in the order you want to discuss them. The notes can act as a reminder or guide when you talk to your supervisor.

Tips for clear communication of an issue:

  • Provide a clear summary of your problem. Start at the beginning, give relevant facts, timelines, and examples.
  • Avoid including your opinion or personal attacks in your explanation.
  • Avoid using words like "always" or "never," which can give the impression that you are exaggerating the problem.
  • If this is an ongoing problem and you have collected documentation, give it to your supervisor once you have finished describing the problem.
  • Remember to listen to what's said in return; communication is a two-way process.

Not all communication is spoken. Body language is nonverbal communication that includes your posture, your hands and whether you make eye contact. These gestures can be subtle or overt, but most importantly they communicate meaning beyond what is said. When having a conversation, pay attention to how you stand. A stiff position with arms crossed over your chest may imply that you are being defensive even if your words state otherwise. Shoving your hands in your pockets when speaking could imply that you have something to hide. Be wary of using too many hand gestures because this could distract listeners from your message.

The challenge of communicating in the workplace is learning how and when to share your ideas or concerns. If you need to tell your supervisor or co-worker about something that is not going well, keep in mind that good timing and good attitude will go a long way toward helping your case.

Like all skills, effective communication needs to be practiced. Toastmasters International is perhaps the best known public speaking organization in the world. Toastmasters is open to anyone who wish to improve their speaking skills and is willing to put in the time and effort to do so. To learn more, visit Toastmasters International .

Methods of Communication

different ways to communicate

Communication of problems and issues in any workplace is important, particularly when safety is involved. It is therefore crucial in manufacturing where people are constantly working with heavy, costly, and sometimes dangerous equipment. As issues and problems arise, they need to be addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Effective communication is an important skill because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost and save money.

There are many different ways to communicate: in person, by phone, via email, or written. There is no single method that fits all communication needs, each one has its time and place.

In person: In the workplace, face-to-face meetings should be utilized whenever possible. Being able to see the person you need to speak to face-to-face gives you instant feedback and helps you gauge their response through their body language. Be careful of getting sidetracked in conversation when you need to communicate a problem.

Email: Email has become the communication standard for most businesses. It can be accessed from almost anywhere and is great for things that don’t require an immediate response. Email is a great way to communicate non-urgent items to large amounts of people or just your team members. One thing to remember is that most people's inboxes are flooded with emails every day and unless they are hyper vigilant about checking everything, important items could be missed. For issues that are urgent, especially those around safety, email is not always be the best solution.

Phone: Phone calls are more personal and direct than email. They allow us to communicate in real time with another person, no matter where they are. Not only can talking prevent miscommunication, it promotes a two-way dialogue. You don’t have to worry about your words being altered or the message arriving on time. However, mobile phone use and the workplace don't always mix. In particular, using mobile phones in a manufacturing setting can lead to a variety of problems, cause distractions, and lead to serious injury.

Written: Written communication is appropriate when detailed instructions are required, when something needs to be documented, or when the person is too far away to easily speak with over the phone or in person.

There is no "right" way to communicate, but you should be aware of how and when to use the appropriate form of communication for your situation. When deciding the best way to communicate with a co-worker or manager, put yourself in their shoes, and think about how you would want to learn about the issue. Also, consider what information you would need to know to better understand the issue. Use your good judgment of the situation and be considerate of your listener's viewpoint.

Did you notice any other potential problems in the previous exercise?

  • [Page 6:] Did you notice any other potential problems in the previous exercise?

Summary of Strategies

In this exercise, you were given a scenario in which there was a problem with a component you were creating on a CNC machine. You were then asked how you wanted to proceed. Depending on your path through this exercise, you might have found an easy solution and fixed it yourself, asked for help and worked with your trainer, or discovered an ongoing G-code problem that was bigger than you initially thought.

When issues and problems arise, it is important that they are addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost, and save money. Although, each path in this exercise ended with a description of a problem solving tool for your toolbox, the first step is always to identify the problem and define the context in which it happened.

There are several strategies that can be used to identify the root cause of a problem. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving that helps people answer the question of why the problem occurred. RCA uses a specific set of steps, with associated tools like the “5 Why Analysis" or the “Cause and Effect Diagram,” to identify the origin of the problem, so that you can:

Once the underlying cause is identified and the scope of the issue defined, the next step is to explore possible strategies to fix the problem.

If you are not sure how to fix the problem, it is okay to ask for help. Problem solving is a process and a skill that is learned with practice. It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and that no one knows everything. Life is about learning. It is okay to ask for help when you don’t have the answer. When you collaborate to solve problems you improve workplace communication and accelerates finding solutions as similar problems arise.

One tool that can be useful for generating possible solutions is brainstorming . Brainstorming is a technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The method was first popularized in 1953 by Alex Faickney Osborn in the book Applied Imagination. The goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can, in a fixed amount of time. Although brainstorming is best done in a group, it can be done individually.

Depending on your path through the exercise, you may have discovered that a couple of your coworkers had experienced similar problems. This should have been an indicator that there was a larger problem that needed to be addressed.

In any workplace, communication of problems and issues (especially those that involve safety) is always important. This is especially crucial in manufacturing where people are constantly working with heavy, costly, and sometimes dangerous equipment. When issues and problems arise, it is important that they be addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Effective communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost and save money.

One strategy for improving communication is the huddle . Just like football players on the field, a huddle is a short meeting with everyone standing in a circle. A daily team huddle is a great way to ensure that team members are aware of changes to the schedule, any problems or safety issues are identified and that team members are aware of how their work impacts one another. When done right, huddles create collaboration, communication, and accountability to results. Impromptu huddles can be used to gather information on a specific issue and get each team member's input.

To learn more about different problem solving strategies, choose an option below. These strategies accompany the outcomes of different decision paths in the problem solving exercise.

  • View Problem Solving Strategies Select a strategy below... Root Cause Analysis How Huddles Work Brainstorming Importance of Good Problem Description Methods of Communication

Communication is one of the most frequent activities we engage in on a day-to-day basis. At some point, we have all felt that we did not effectively communicate an idea as we would have liked. The key to effective communication is preparation. Rather than attempting to haphazardly improvise something, take a few minutes and think about what you want say and how you will say it. If necessary, write yourself a note with the key points or ideas in the order you want to discuss them. The notes can act as a reminder or guide during your meeting.

  • Provide a clear summary of the problem. Start at the beginning, give relevant facts, timelines, and examples.

In person: In the workplace, face-to-face meetings should be utilized whenever possible. Being able to see the person you need to speak to face-to-face gives you instant feedback and helps you gauge their response in their body language. Be careful of getting sidetracked in conversation when you need to communicate a problem.

There is no "right" way to communicate, but you should be aware of how and when to use the appropriate form of communication for the situation. When deciding the best way to communicate with a co-worker or manager, put yourself in their shoes, and think about how you would want to learn about the issue. Also, consider what information you would need to know to better understand the issue. Use your good judgment of the situation and be considerate of your listener's viewpoint.

"Never try to solve all the problems at once — make them line up for you one-by-one.” — Richard Sloma

Problem Solving: An Important Job Skill

Problem solving improves efficiency and communication on the shop floor. It increases a company's efficiency and profitability, so it's one of the top skills employers look for when hiring new employees. Recent industry surveys show that employers consider soft skills, such as problem solving, as critical to their business’s success.

The 2011 survey, "Boiling Point? The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing ," polled over a thousand manufacturing executives who reported that the number one skill deficiency among their current employees is problem solving, which makes it difficult for their companies to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.

In this video, industry professionals discuss their expectations and present tips for new employees joining the manufacturing workforce.

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  • [Quick Summary: Question1] What are two things you learned in this case study?
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  • [Quick Summary: Question2] What question(s) do you still have about the case study?
  • Is there anything you would like to learn more about with respect to this case study?
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  • Author Rights
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Journal of Leadership Education

  • JOLE 2023 Special Issue
  • Editorial Staff
  • 20th Anniversary Issue
  • The Development of Problem-Solving Skills for Aspiring Educational Leaders

Jeremy D. Visone 10.12806/V17/I4/R3

Introduction

Solving problems is a quintessential aspect of the role of an educational leader. In particular, building leaders, such as principals, assistant principals, and deans of students, are frequently beset by situations that are complex, unique, and open-ended. There are often many possible pathways to resolve the situations, and an astute educational leader needs to consider many factors and constituencies before determining a plan of action. The realm of problem solving might include student misconduct, personnel matters, parental complaints, school culture, instructional leadership, as well as many other aspects of educational administration. Much consideration has been given to the development of problem-solving skills for educational leaders. This study was designed to answer the following research question: “How do aspiring educational leaders’ problem solving skills, as well as perceptions of their problem-solving skills, develop during a year-long graduate course sequence focused on school-level leadership that includes the presentation of real-world scenarios?” This mixed-methods study extends research about the development of problem-solving skills conducted with acting administrators (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992, 1995).

The Nature of Problems

Before examining how educational leaders can process and solve problems effectively, it is worth considering the nature of problems. Allison (1996) posited simply that problems are situations that require thought and/or actions. Further, there are different types of problems presented to educational leaders. First, there are  well-structured problems , which can be defined as those with clear goals and relatively prescribed resolution pathways, including an easy way of determining whether goals were met (Allison, 1996).

Conversely,  ill-structured problems  are those with more open-ended profiles, whereby the goals, resolution pathways, or evidence of success are not necessarily clear. These types of problems could also be considered  unstructured  (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995) or  open-design  (Allison, 1996). Many of the problems presented to educational leaders are unstructured problems. For example, a principal must decide how to discipline children who misbehave, taking into consideration their disciplinary history, rules and protocols of the school, and other contextual factors; determine how best to raise student achievement (Duke, 2014); and resolve personnel disputes among staff members. None of these problems point to singular solutions that can be identified as “right” or “wrong.” Surely there are responses that are less desirable than others (i.e. suspension or recommendation for expulsion for minor infractions), but, with justification and context, many possible solutions exist.

Problem-Solving Perspectives and Models

Various authors have shared perspectives about effective problem solving. Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005) outlined the “21 Responsibilities of the School Leader.” These responsibilities are highly correlated with student achievement based upon the authors’ meta- analysis of 69 studies about leadership’s effect on student achievement. The most highly correlated of the responsibilities was  situational awareness , which refers to understanding the school deeply enough to anticipate what might go wrong from day-to-day, navigate the individuals and groups within the school, and recognize issues that might surface at a later time (Marzano et al., 2005). Though the authors discuss the utility of situational awareness for long- term, large-scale decision making, in order for an educational leader to effectively solve the daily problems that come her way, she must again have a sense of situational awareness, lest she make seemingly smaller-scale decisions that will lead to large-scale problems later.

Other authors have focused on problems that can be considered more aligned with the daily work of educational leaders. Considering the problem-type classification dichotomies of Allison (1996) and Leithwood and Steinbach (1995), problems that educational leaders face on a daily basis can be identified as either well-structured or unstructured. Various authors have developed problem-solving models focused on unstructured problems (Bolman & Deal, 2008; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Simon, 1993), and these models will be explored next.

Simon (1993) outlined three phases of the decision-making process. The first is to find problems that need attention. Though many problems of educational leaders are presented directly to them via, for example, an adult referring a child for discipline, a parent registering a complaint about a staff member, or a staff member describing a grievance with a colleague, there is a corollary skill of identifying what problems—of the many that come across one’s desk— require immediate attention, or ultimately, any attention, at all. Second, Simon identified “designing possible courses of action” (p. 395). Finally, educational leaders must evaluate the quality of their decisions. From this point of having selected a viable and positively evaluated potential solution pathway, implementation takes place.

Bolman and Deal (2008) outlined a model of reframing problems using four different frames, through which problems of practice can be viewed. These frames provide leaders with a more complete set of perspectives than they would likely utilize on their own. The  structural frame  represents the procedural and systems-oriented aspects of an organization. Within this frame, a leader might ask whether there is a supervisory relationship involved in a problem, if a protocol exists to solve such a problem, or what efficiencies or logical processes can help steer a leader toward a resolution that meets organizational goals. The  human resource frame  refers to the needs of individuals within the organization. A leader might try to solve a problem of practice with the needs of constituents in mind, considering the development of employees and the balance between their satisfaction and intellectual stimulation and the organization’s needs. The  political frame  includes the often competing interests among individuals and groups within the organization, whereby alliances and negotiations are needed to navigate the potential minefield of many groups’ overlapping aims. From the political frame, a leader could consider what the interpersonal costs will be for the leader and organization among different constituent groups, based upon which alternatives are selected. Last, the  symbolic frame  includes elements of meaning within an organization, such as traditions, unspoken rules, and myths. A leader may need to consider this frame when proposing a solution that might interfere with a long-standing organizational tradition.

Bolman and Deal (2008) identified the political and symbolic frames as weaknesses in most leaders’ consideration of problems of practice, and the weakness in recognizing political aspects of decision making for educational leaders was corroborated by Johnson and Kruse (2009). An implication for leadership preparation is to instruct students in the considerations of these frames and promote their utility when examining problems.

Authors have noted that experts use different processes than novice problem solvers (Simon, 1993; VanLehn, 1991). An application of this would be Simon’s (1993) assertion that experts can rely on their extensive experience to remember solutions to many problems, without having to rely on an extensive analytical process. Further, they may not even consider a “problem” identified by a novice a problem, at all. With respect to educational leaders, Leithwood and Steinbach (1992, 1995) outlined a set of competencies possessed by expert principals, when compared to their typical counterparts. Expert principals were better at identifying the nature of problems; possessing a sense of priority, difficulty, how to proceed, and connectedness to prior situations; setting meaningful goals for problem solving, such as seeking goals that are student-centered and knowledge-focused; using guiding principles and long-term purposes when determining the best courses of action; seeing fewer obstacles and constraints when presented with problems; outlining detailed plans for action that include gathering extensive information to inform decisions along the plan’s pathway; and responding with confidence and calm to problem solving. Next, I will examine how problem-solving skills are developed.

Preparation for Educational Leadership Problem Solving

How can the preparation of leaders move candidates toward the competencies of expert principals? After all, leading a school has been shown to be a remarkably complex enterprise (Hallinger & McCary, 1990; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992), especially if the school is one where student achievement is below expectations (Duke, 2014), and the framing of problems by educational leaders has been espoused as a critically important enterprise (Bolman & Deal, 2008; Dimmock, 1996; Johnson & Kruse, 2009; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992, 1995; Myran & Sutherland, 2016). In other disciplines, such as business management, simulations and case studies are used to foster problem-solving skills for aspiring leaders (Rochford & Borchert, 2011; Salas, Wildman, & Piccolo, 2009), and attention to problem-solving skills has been identified as an essential curricular component in the training of journalism and mass communication students (Bronstein & Fitzpatrick, 2015). Could such real-world problem solving methodologies be effective in the preparation of educational leaders? In a seminal study about problem solving for educational leaders, Leithwood and Steinbach (1992, 1995) sought to determine if effective problem-solving expertise could be explicitly taught, and, if so, could teaching problem- processing expertise be helpful in moving novices toward expert competence? Over the course of four months and four separate learning sessions, participants in the control group were explicitly taught subskills within six problem-solving components: interpretation of the problem for priority, perceived difficulty, data needed for further action, and anecdotes of prior experience that can inform action; goals for solving the problem; large-scale principles that guide decision making; barriers or obstacles that need to be overcome; possible courses of action; and the confidence of the leader to solve the problem. The authors asserted that providing conditions to participants that included models of effective problem-solving, feedback, increasingly complex problem-solving demands, frequent opportunities for practice, group problem-solving, individual reflection, authentic problems, and help to stimulate metacognition and reflection would result in educational leaders improving their problem-solving skills.

The authors used two experts’ ratings of participants’ problem-solving for both process (their methods of attacking the problem) and product (their solutions) using a 0-3 scale in a pretest-posttest design. They found significant increases in some problem-solving skills (problem interpretation, goal setting, and identification of barriers or obstacles that need to be overcome) after explicit instruction (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992, 1995). They recommended conducting more research on the preparation of educational leaders, with particular respect to approaches that would improve the aspiring leaders’ problem-solving skills.

Solving problems for practicing principals could be described as constructivist, since most principals do solve problems within a social context of other stakeholders, such as teachers, parents, and students (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992). Thus, some authors have examined providing opportunities for novice or aspiring leaders to construct meaning from novel scenarios using the benefits of, for example, others’ point of view, expert modeling, simulations, and prior knowledge (Duke, 2014; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992, 1995; Myran & Sutherland, 2016; Shapira-Lishchinsky, 2015). Such collaborative inquiry has been effective for teachers, as well (DeLuca, Bolden, & Chan, 2017). Such learning can be considered consistent with the ideas of other social constructivist theorists (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Vygotsky, 1978) as well, since individuals are working together to construct meaning, and they are pushing into areas of uncertainty and lack of expertise.

Shapira-Lishchinsky (2015) added some intriguing findings and recommendations to those of Leithwood and Steinbach (1992, 1995). In this study, 50 teachers with various leadership roles in their schools were presented regularly with ethical dilemmas during their coursework. Participants either interacted with the dilemmas as members of a role play or by observing those chosen. When the role play was completed, the entire group debriefed and discussed the ethical dilemmas and role-playing participants’ treatment of the issues. This method was shown, through qualitative analysis of participants’ discussions during the simulations, to produce rich dialogue and allow for a safe and controlled treatment of difficult issues. As such, the use of simulations was presented as a viable means through which to prepare aspiring educational leaders. Further, the author suggested the use of further studies with simulation-based learning that seek to gain information about aspiring leaders’ self-efficacy and psychological empowerment. A notable example of project-based scenarios in a virtual collaboration environment to prepare educational leaders is the work of Howard, McClannon, and Wallace (2014). Shapira-Lishchinsky (2015) also recommended similar research in other developed countries to observe the utility of the approaches of simulation and social constructivism to examine them for a wider and diverse aspiring administrator candidate pool.

Further, in an extensive review of prior research studies on the subject, Hallinger and Bridges (2017) noted that Problem-Based Learning (PBL), though applied successfully in other professions and written about extensively (Hallinger & Bridges, 1993, 2017; Stentoft, 2017), was relatively unheralded in the preparation of educational leaders. According to the authors, characteristics of PBL included problems replacing theory as the organization of course content, student-led group work, creation of simulated products by students, increased student ownership over learning, and feedback along the way from professors. Their review noted that PBL had positive aspects for participants, such as increased motivation, real-world connections, and positive pressure that resulted from working with a team. However, participants also expressed concerns about time constraints, lack of structure, and interpersonal dynamics within their teams. There were positive effects found on aspiring leaders’ problem-solving skill development with PBL (Copland, 2000; Hallinger & Bridges, 2017). Though PBL is much more prescribed than the scenarios strategy described in the Methods section below, the applicability of real-world problems to the preparation of educational leaders is summarized well by Copland (2000):

[I]nstructional practices that activate prior knowledge and situate learning in contexts similar to those encountered in practice are associated with the development of students’ ability to understand and frame problems. Moreover, the incorporation of debriefing techniques that encourage students’ elaboration of knowledge and reflection on learning appear to help students solidify a way of thinking about problems. (p. 604)

This study involved a one-group pretest-posttest design. No control group was assigned, as the pedagogical strategy in question—the use of real-world scenarios to build problem-solving skill for aspiring educational leaders—is integral to the school’s curriculum that prepares leaders, and, therefore, it is unethical to deny to student participants (Gay & Airasian, 2003). Thus, all participants were provided instruction with the use of real-world scenarios.

Participants.  Graduate students at a regional, comprehensive public university in the Northeast obtaining a 6 th -year degree (equivalent to a second master’s degree) in educational leadership and preparing for certification as educational administrators served as participants. Specifically, students in three sections of the same full-year, two-course sequence, entitled “School Leadership I and II” were invited to participate. This particular course was selected from the degree course sequence, as it deals most directly with the problem-solving nature and daily work of school administrators. Some key outcomes of the course include students using data to drive school improvement action plans, communicating effectively with a variety of stakeholders, creating a safe and caring school climate, creating and maintaining a strategic and viable school budget, articulating all the steps in a hiring process for teachers and administrators, and leading with cultural proficiency.

The three sections were taught by two different professors. The professors used real- world scenarios in at least half of their class meetings throughout the year, or in approximately 15 classes throughout the year. During these classes, students were presented with realistic situations that have occurred, or could occur, in actual public schools. Students worked with their classmates to determine potential solutions to the problems and then discussed their responses as a whole class under the direction of their professor, a master practitioner. Both professors were active school administrators, with more than 25 years combined educational leadership experience in public schools. It should be noted that the scenario presentation and discussions took place during the class sessions, only. These were not presented for homework or in online forums.

Of the 44 students in these three sections, 37 volunteered to participate at some point in the data collection sequence, but not all students in the pretest session attended the posttest session months later and vice versa. As a result, only 20 students’ data were used for the matched pairs analysis. All 37 participants were certified professional educators in public schools in Connecticut. The participants’ professional roles varied and included classroom teachers, instructional coaches, related service personnel, unified arts teachers, as well as other non- administrative educational roles. Characteristics of participants in the overall and matched pairs groups can be found in Table 1.

Table 1 Participant Characteristics

Procedure.  Participants’ data were compared between a fall of 2016 baseline data collection period and a spring of 2017 posttest data collection period. During the fall data collection period, participants were randomly assigned one of two versions of a Google Forms survey. After items about participant characteristics, the survey consisted of 11 items designed to elicit quantitative and qualitative data about participants’ perceptions of their problem-solving abilities, as well as their ability to address real-world problems faced by educational leaders. The participants were asked to rate their perception of their situational awareness, flexibility, and problem solving ability on a 10-point (1-10) Likert scale, following operational definitions of the terms (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005; Winter, 1982). They were asked, for each construct, to write open-ended responses to justify their numerical rating. They were then asked to write what they perceived they still needed to improve their problem-solving skills. The final four items included two real-world, unstructured, problem-based scenarios for which participants were asked to create plans of action. They were also asked to rate their problem-solving confidence with respect to their proposed action plans for each scenario on a 4-point (0-3) Likert scale.

During the spring data collection period, participants accessed the opposite version of the Google Forms survey from the one they completed in the fall. All items were identical on the two survey versions, except the scenarios, which were different on each survey version. The use of two versions was to ensure that any differences in perceived or actual difficulty among the four scenarios provided would not alter results based upon the timing of participant access (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995). In order to link participants’ fall and spring data in a confidential manner, participants created a unique, six-digit alphanumeric code.

A focus group interview followed each spring data collection session. The interviews were recorded to allow for accurate transcription. The list of standard interview questions can be found in Table 2. This interview protocol was designed to elicit qualitative data with respect to aspiring educational leaders’ perceptions about their developing problem-solving abilities.

Table 2 Focus Group Interview Questions ___________________________________________________________________________________________

Please describe the development of your problem-solving skills as an aspiring educational leader over the course of this school year. In what ways have you improved your skills? Be as specific as you can.

What has been helpful to you (i.e. coursework, readings, experiences, etc.) in this development of your problem-solving skills? Why?

What do you believe you still need for the development in your problem-solving skills as an aspiring educational leader?

Discuss your perception of your ability to problem solve as an aspiring educational leader. How has this changed from the beginning of this school year? Why?

Please add anything else you perceive is relevant to this conversation about the development of your problem-solving skills as an aspiring educational leader.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Data Analysis.

Quantitative data .  Data were obtained from participants’ responses to Likert-scale items relating to their confidence levels with respect to aspects of problem solving, as well as from the rating of participants’ responses to the given scenarios  against a rubric. The educational leadership problem-solving rubric chosen (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995) was used with permission, and it reflects the authors’ work with explicitly teaching practicing educational leaders components of problem solving. The adapted rubric can be found in Figure 1. Through the use of this rubric, each individual response by a participant to a presented scenario was assigned a score from 0-15. It should be noted that affect data (representing the final 3 possible points on the 18-point rubric) were obtained via participants’ self-reporting their confidence with respect to their proposed plans of action. To align with the rubric, participants self-assessed their confidence through this item with a 0-3 scale.

0 = No Use of the Subskill 1 = There is Some Indication of Use of the Subskill 2 = The Subskill is Present to Some Degree 3 = The Subskill is Present to a Marked Degree; This is a Fine Example of this Subskill

Figure 1.  Problem-solving model for unstructured problems. Adapted from “Expert Problem Solving: Evidence from School and District Leaders,” by K. Leithwood and R. Steinbach, pp. 284-285. Copyright 1995 by the State University of New York Press.

I compared Likert-scale items and rubric scores via descriptive statistics and rubric scores also via a paired sample  t -test and Cohen’s  d , all using the software program IBM SPSS. I did not compare the Likert-scale items about situational awareness, flexibility, and problem solving ability with  t -tests or Cohen’s  d , since these items did not represent a validated instrument. They were only single items based upon participants’ ratings compared to literature-based definitions. However, the value of the comparison of means from fall to spring was triangulated with qualitative results to provide meaning. For example, to say that participants’ self-assessment ratings for perceived problem-solving abilities increased, I examined both the mean difference for items from fall to spring and what participants shared throughout the qualitative survey items and focus group interviews.

Prior to scoring participants’ responses to the scenarios using the rubric, and in an effort to maximize the content validity of the rubric scores, I calibrated my use of the rubric with two experts from the field. Two celebrated principals, representing more than 45 combined years of experience in school-level administration, collaboratively and comparatively scored participant responses. Prior to scoring, the team worked collaboratively to construct appropriate and comprehensive exemplar responses to the four problem-solving scenarios. Then the team blindly scored fall pretest scenario responses using the Leithwood and Steinbach (1995) rubric, and upon comparing scores, the interrater reliability correlation coefficient was .941, indicating a high degree of agreement throughout the team.

Qualitative data.  These data were obtained from open-ended items on the survey, including participants’ responses to the given scenarios, as well as the focus group interview transcripts. I analyzed qualitative data consistent with the grounded theory principles of Strauss and Corbin (1998) and the constant comparative methods of Glaser (1965), including a period of open coding of results, leading to axial coding to determine the codes’ dimensions and relationships between categories and their subcategories, and selective coding to arrive at themes. Throughout the entire data analysis process, I repeatedly returned to raw data to determine the applicability of emergent codes to previously analyzed data. Some categorical codes based upon the review of literature were included in the initial coding process. These codes were derived from the existing theoretical problem-solving models of Bolman and Deal (2008) and Leithwood and Steinbach (1995). These codes included  modeling ,  relationships , and  best for kids . Open codes that emerged from the participants’ responses included  experience ,  personality traits ,  current job/role , and  team . Axial coding revealed, for example, that current jobs or roles cited, intuitively, provided both sufficient building-wide perspective and situational memory (i.e. for special education teachers and school counselors) and insufficient experiences (i.e. for classroom teachers) to solve the given problems with confidence. From such understandings of the codes, categories, and their dimensions, themes were developed.

Quantitative Results.   First, participants’ overall, aggregate responses (not matched pairs) were compared from the fall to spring, descriptively. These findings are outlined in Table  3. As is seen in the table, each item saw a modest increase over the course of the year. Participant perceptions of their problem-solving abilities across the three constructs presented (situational awareness, flexibility, and problem solving) did increase over the course of the year, as did the average group score for the problem-solving scenarios. However, due to participant differences in the two data collection periods, these aggregate averages do not represent a matched-pair dataset.

Table 3 Fall to Spring Comparison of Likert-Scale and Rubric-Scored Items

a  These problem-solving dimensions from literature were rated by participants on a scale from 1- 10. b  Participants received a rubric score for each scenario between 0-18. Participants’ two scenario scores for each data collection period (fall, spring) were averaged to arrive at the scores represented here.

In order to determine the statistical significance of the increase in participants’ problem- solving rubric scores, a paired-samples  t -test was applied to the fall ( M  = 9.15;  SD  = 2.1) and spring ( M  = 9.25;  SD  = 2.3) averages. Recall that 20 participants had valid surveys for both the fall and spring. The  t -test ( t  = -.153;  df  = 19;  p  = .880) revealed no statistically significant change from fall to spring, despite the minor increase (0.10). I applied Cohen’s  d  to calculate the effect size. The small sample size ( n  = 20) for the paired-sample  t -test may have contributed to the lack of statistical significance. However, standard deviations were also relatively small, so the question of effect size was of particular importance. Cohen’s  d  was 0.05, which is also very small, indicating that little change—really no improvement, from a statistical standpoint—in participants’ ability to create viable action plans to solve real-world problems occurred throughout the year. However, the participants’ perceptions of their problem-solving abilities did increase, as evidenced by the increases in the paired-samples perception means shown in Table 3, though these data were only examined descriptively (from a quantitative perspective) due to the fact that these questions were individual items that are not part of a validated instrument.

Qualitative Results.   Participant responses to open-ended items on the questionnaire, responses to the scenarios, and oral responses to focus group interview questions served as sources of qualitative data. Since the responses to the scenarios were focused on participant competence with problem solving, as measured by the aforementioned rubric (Leithwood &  Steinbach, 1995), these data were examined separately from data collected from the other two sources.

Responses to scenarios.  As noted, participants’ rubric ratings for the scenarios did not display a statistically significant increase from fall to spring. As such, this outline will not focus upon changes in responses from fall to spring. Rather, I examined the responses, overall, through the lens of the Leithwood and Steinbach (1995) problem-solving framework indicators against which they were rated. Participants typically had outlined reasonable, appropriate, and logical solution processes. For example, in a potential bullying case scenario, two different participants offered, “I would speak to the other [students] individually if they have said or done anything mean to other student [ sic ] and be clear that it is not tolerable and will result in major consequences” and “I would initiate an investigation into the situation beginning with [an] interview with the four girls.” These responses reflect actions that the consulted experts anticipated from participants and deemed as logical and needed interventions. However, these two participants omitted other needed steps, such as addressing the bullied student’s mental health needs, based upon her mother’s report of suicidal ideations. Accordingly, participants earned points for reasonable and logical responses very consistently, yet, few full-credit responses were observed.

Problem interpretation scores were much more varied. For this indicator, some participants were able to identify many, if not all, the major issues in the scenarios that needed attention. For example, for a scenario where two teachers were not interacting professionally toward each other, many participants correctly identified that this particular scenario could include elements of sexual harassment, professionalism, teaching competence, and personality conflict. However, many other participants missed at least two of these key elements of the problem, leaving their solution processes incomplete. The categories of (a) goals and (b) principles and values also displayed a similarly wide distribution of response ratings.

One category, constraints, presented consistent difficulty for the participants. Ratings were routinely 0 and 1. Participants could not consistently report what barriers or obstacles would need addressing prior to success with their proposed solutions. To be clear, it was not a matter of participants listing invalid or unrealistic barriers or obstacles; rather, the participants were typically omitting constraints altogether from their responses. For example, for a scenario involving staff members arriving late and unprepared to data team meetings, many participants did not identify that a school culture of not valuing data-driven decision making or lack of norms for data team work could be constraints that the principal could likely face prior to reaching a successful resolution.

Responses to open-ended items.  When asked for rationale regarding their ratings for situational awareness, flexibility, and problem solving, participants provided open-ended responses. These responses revealed patterns worth considering, and, again, this discussion will consider, in aggregate, responses made in both the pre- and post- data collection periods, again due to the similarities in responses between the two data collection periods. The most frequently observed code (112 incidences) was  experience . Closely related were the codes  current job/role  (50 incidences). Together, these codes typically represented a theme that participants were linking their confidence with respect to problem solving with their exposure (or lack thereof) in their professional work. For example, a participant reported, “As a school counselor, I have a lot of contact with many stakeholders in the school -admin [ sic ], parents, teachers, staff, etc. I feel that I have a pretty good handle on the systemic issues.” This example is one of many where individuals working in counseling, instructional coaching, special education, and other support roles expressed their advanced levels of perspective based upon their regular contact with many stakeholders, including administrators. Thus, they felt they had more prior knowledge and situational memory about problems in their schools.

However, this category of codes also included those, mostly classroom or unified arts teachers, who expressed that their relative lack of experiences outside their own classrooms limited their perspective for larger-scale problem solving. One teacher succinctly summarized this sentiment, “I have limited experience in being part of situations outside of my classroom.” Another focused on the general problem solving skill in her classroom not necessarily translating to confidence with problem solving at the school level: “I feel that I have a high situational awareness as a teacher in the classroom, but as I move through these leadership programs I find that I struggle to take the perspective of a leader.” These experiences were presented in opposition to their book learning or university training. There were a number of instances (65 combined) of references to the value of readings, class discussions, group work, scenarios presented, research, and coursework in the spring survey. When asked what the participants need more, again, experience was referenced often. One participant summarized this concept, “I think that I, personally, need more experience in the day-to-day . . . setting.” Another specifically separated experiences from scenario work, “[T]here is [ sic ] some things you can not [ sic ] learn from merely discussing a ‘what if” scenario. A seasoned administrator learns problem solving skills on the job.”

Another frequently cited code was  personality traits  (63 incidences), which involved participants linking elements of their own personalities to their perceived abilities to process problems, almost exclusively from an assets perspective. Examples of traits identified by participants as potentially helpful in problem solving included: open-mindedness, affinity for working with others, not being judgmental, approachability, listening skills, and flexibility. One teacher exemplified this general approach by indicating, “I feel that I am a good listener in regards to inviting opinions. I enjoy learning through cooperation and am always willing to adapt my teaching to fit needs of the learners.” However, rare statements of personality traits interfering with problem solving included, “I find it hard to trust others [ sic ] abilities” and “my personal thoughts and biases.”

Another important category of the participant responses involved connections with others. First, there were many references to  relationships  (27 incidences), mostly from the perspective that building positive relationships leads to greater problem-solving ability, as the aspiring leader knows stakeholders better and can rely on them due to the history of positive interactions. One participant framed this idea from a deficit perspective, “Not knowing all the outlying relationships among staff members makes situational awareness difficult.” Another identified that established positive relationships are already helpful to an aspiring leader, “I have strong rapport with fellow staff members and administrators in my building.” In a related way, many instances of the code  team  were identified (29). These references overwhelmingly identified that solving problems within a team context is helpful. One participant stated, “I often team with people to discuss possible solutions,” while another elaborated,

I recognize that sometimes problems may arise for which I am not the most qualified or may not have the best answer. I realize that I may need to rely on others or seek out help/opinions to ensure that I make the appropriate decision.

Overall, participants recognized that problem-solving for leaders does not typically occur in a vacuum.

Responses to focus group interview questions.  As with the open-ended responses, patterns were evident in the interview responses, and many of these findings were supportive of the aforementioned themes. First, participants frequently referenced the power of group work to help build their understanding about problems and possible solutions. One participant stated, “hearing other people talk and realizing other concerns that you may not have thought of . . . even as a teacher sometimes, you look at it this way, and someone else says to see it this way.” Another added, “seeing it from a variety of persons [ sic ] point of views. How one person was looking at it, and how another person was looking at it was really helpful.” Also, the participants noted the quality of the discussion was a direct result of “professors who have had real-life experience” as practicing educational leaders, so they could add more realistic feedback and insight to the discussions.

Perhaps most notable in the participant responses during the focus groups was the emphasis on the value of real-world scenarios for the students. These were referenced, without prompting, in all three focus groups by many participants. Answers to the question about what has been most helpful in the development of their problem-solving skills included, “I think the real-world application we are doing,” “I think being presented with all the scenarios,” and “[the professor] brought a lot of real situations.”

With respect to what participants believed they still needed to become better and more confident problem solvers, two patterns emerged. First, students recognized that they have much more to learn, especially with respect to policy and law. It is noteworthy that, with few exceptions, these students had not taken the policy or law courses in the program, and they had not yet completed their administrative internships. Some students actually reported rating themselves as less capable problem solvers in the spring because they now understood more clearly what they lacked in knowledge. One student exemplified this sentiment, “I might have graded myself higher in the fall than I did now . . . [I now can] self identify areas I could improve in that I was not as aware of.” Less confidence in the spring was a minority opinion, however. In a more typical response, another participant stated, “I feel much more prepared for that than I did at the beginning of the year.”

Overall, the most frequently discussed future need identified was experience, either through the administrative internship or work as a formal school administrator. Several students summarized this idea, “That real-world experience to have to deal with it without being able to talk to 8 other people before having to deal with it . . . until you are the person . . . you don’t know” and “They tell you all they want. You don’t know it until you are in it.” Overall, most participants perceived themselves to have grown as problem solvers, but they overwhelmingly recognized that they needed more learning and experience to become confident and effective problem solvers.

This study continues a research pathway about the development of problem-solving skills for administrators by focusing on their preparation. The participants did not see a significant increase in their problem-solving skills over the year-long course in educational leadership.

Whereas, this finding is not consistent with the findings of others who focused on the development of problem-solving skills for school leaders (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Shapira-Lishchinsky, 2015), nor is it consistent with PBL research about the benefits of that approach for aspiring educational leaders (Copland, 2000; Hallinger & Bridges, 2017), it is important to note that the participants in this study were at a different point in their careers. First, they were aspirants, as opposed to practicing leaders. Also, the studied intervention (scenarios) was not the same or nearly as comprehensive as the prescriptive PBL approach. Further, unlike the participants in either the practicing leader or PBL studies, because these individuals had not yet had their internship experiences, they had no practical work as educational leaders. This theme of lacking practical experience was observed in both open-ended responses and focus group interviews, with participants pointing to their upcoming internship experiences, or even their eventual work as administrators, as a key missing piece of their preparation.

Despite the participants’ lack of real gains across the year of preparation in their problem- solving scores, the participants did, generally, report an increase in their confidence in problem solving, which they attributed to a number of factors. The first was the theme of real-world context. This finding was consistent with others who have advocated for teaching problem solving through real-world scenarios (Duke, 2014; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992, 1995; Myran & Sutherland, 2016; Shapira-Lishchinsky, 2015). This study further adds to this conversation, not only a corroboration of the importance of this method (at least in aspiring leaders’ minds), but also that participants specifically recognized their professors’ experiences as school administrators as important for providing examples, context, and credibility to the work in the classroom.

In addition to the scenario approach, the participants also recognized the importance of learning from one another. In addition to the experiences of their practitioner-professors, many participants espoused the value of hearing the diverse perspectives of other students. The use of peer discussion was also an element of instruction in the referenced studies (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Shapira-Lishchinsky, 2015), corroborating the power of aspiring leaders learning from one another and supporting existing literature about the social nature of problem solving (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992; Vygotsky, 1978).

Finally, the ultimate theme identified through this study is the need for real-world experience in the field as an administrator or intern. It is simply not enough to learn about problem solving or learn the background knowledge needed to solve problems, even when the problems presented are real-world in nature. Scenarios are not enough for aspiring leaders to perceive their problem-solving abilities to be adequate or for their actual problem-solving abilities to improve. They need to be, as some of the participants reasoned, in positions of actual responsibility, where the weight of their decisions will have tangible impacts on stakeholders, including students.

The study of participants’ responses to the scenarios connected to the Four Frames model of Bolman and Deal (2008). The element for which participants received the consistently highest scores was identifying solution processes. This area might most logically be connected to the structural and human resource frames, as solutions typically involve working to meet individuals’ needs, as is necessary in the human resource frame, and attending to protocols and procedures, which is the essence of the structural frame. As identified above, the political and symbolic frames have been cited by the authors as the most underdeveloped by educational leaders, and this assertion is corroborated by the finding in this study that participants struggled the most with identifying constraints, which can sometimes arise from an understanding of the competing personal interests in an organization (political frame) and the underlying meaning behind aspects of an organization (symbolic frame), such as unspoken rules and traditions. The lack of success identifying constraints is also consistent with participants’ statements that they needed actual experiences in leadership roles, during which they would likely encounter, firsthand, the types of constraints they were unable to articulate for the given scenarios. Simply, they had not yet “lived” these types of obstacles.

The study includes several notable limitations. First, the study’s size is limited, particularly with only 20 participants’ data available for the matched pairs analysis. Further, this study was conducted at one university, within one particular certification program, and over three sections of one course, which represented about one-half of the time students spend in the program. It is likely that more gains in problem-solving ability and confidence would have been observed if this study was continued through the internship year. Also, the study did not include a control group. The lack of an experimental design limits the power of conclusions about causality. However, this limitation is mitigated by two factors. First, the results did not indicate a statistically significant improvement, so there is not a need to attribute a gain score to a particular variable (i.e. use of scenarios), anyway, and, second, the qualitative results did reveal the perceived value for participants in the use of scenarios, without any prompting of the researcher. Finally, the participant pool was not particularly diverse, though this fact is not particularly unusual for the selected university, in general, representing a contemporary challenge the university’s state is facing to educate its increasingly diverse student population, with a teaching and administrative workforce that is predominantly White.

The findings in this study invite further research. In addressing some of the limitations identified here, expanding this study to include aspiring administrators across other institutions representing different areas of the United States and other developed countries, would provide a more generalizable set of results. Further, studying the development of problem-solving skills during the administrative internship experience would also add to the work outlined here by considering the practical experience of participants.

In short, this study illustrates for those who prepare educational leaders the value of using scenarios in increasing aspiring leaders’ confidence and knowledge. However, intuitively, scenarios alone are not enough to engender significant change in their actual problem-solving abilities. Whereas, real-world context is important to the development of aspiring educational leaders’ problem-solving skills, the best context is likely to be the real work of administration.

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Author Biography

Dr. Jeremy Visone is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Policy, & Instructional Technology. Until 2016, he worked as an administrator at both the elementary and secondary levels, most recently at Anna Reynolds Elementary School, a National Blue Ribbon School in 2016. Dr. Visone can be reached at  [email protected] .

Management 3.0

The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace

November 10, 2022 - job & career.

Hands-on Management 3.0 leadership workshops focus on tangible practices to help managers, team leaders, middle management, and C-level executives increase employee engagement and foster transformational change within their organizations. Start Your Leadership Journey Today!

According to Management 3.0 Facilitator Ilija Popjanev , problem solving is essential for individuals and organizations as it enables us to control all aspects of our business environment. In this article, Ilija looks into problem-solving skills, how the problem-solving process works, and which tools help you to advance this skill set.

In this article you will learn about:

What is Problem Solving?

  • Problem-Solving in Six Easy Steps

Why is Problem-Solving so Important for Leaders, Teams, and Organizations?

Problem-solving techniques in the workplace, better employee experience by using problem-solving tools from management 3.0, how do employees develop problem-solving skills, what skills make a good problem solver.

In the last few years, we have been living 100% in the VUCA world, with so many unpredictable and complex threats and challenges. As a result, organizations must create a sense of urgency to redesign their present business models and to rebuild the foundations for the future of work. 

All companies now need effective problem-solving skills and tools at all levels, starting with individuals and teams, and finishing with their leaders and managers. This new reality enables growth and success only for those well-equipped and empowered by effective problem-solving skills and tools. 

One of the behaviors of Management 1.0 style is to constantly look for ways to stop “fighting fires,”. Instead, the Management 3.0 style seeks to “find the root cause” of the problem, and then to refocus, improve, and plan a different way for fulfilling workplace tasks.

Management 3.0 provides effective tools and principles for building the system for effective problem solving. It provides us with techniques we can use to understand what is happening in our world, to identify things we want to change, and then apply everything that needs to be done to achieve the desired outcome. We live by the motto: fail fast, recover quickly, and learn from the failures.

The agile way of working does not mean being perfect, but instead it allows for failures and sees them as opportunities to learn, grow, and adapt . Perfection is useless if we do not provide value fast for our customers. That is why problem solving is the foundation for continuous improvement, learning, and collaboration, which leads to innovations and success in ever-changing economies and the new normal that we now live in. 

The definition of problem solving according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is: “The process or act of finding a solution to a problem.” Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary describes problem solving as: “The process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues.”

For me, Problem-solving is a process of understanding and owning the problem, constant pursuit for solutions and improvements, and putting into action the best option for the desired outcome.

Understanding context and interacting with our teammates are the essence of effective problem-solving. We must clearly understand the complexity of our environment and the specifics of the context because things continuously change and evolve. Here, the Complexity Thinking Guidelines may help you to better understand what is happening and how to navigate complex environments more effectively.

We must have a lens through which to see problems as opportunities to improve, and regard our teams as sources of knowledge and experience. We have to connect people and opportunities in ways that can facilitate the best solutions for the problems that we are handling. Try using the Personal Maps , an excellent tool for bringing teams together and fostering diversity, respect, trust, and collaboration.

Today, all innovations and solved problems are team efforts because teams constantly improve their toolbox and competencies. Teams want to create something that was not there before, and which maximize their knowledge and resources.

To accomplish that, they need to build a process in a few easy steps:

  • Be present, observe what is happening in your world, and define the problem.
  • Review where you are now and what influences that state.
  • Constantly improve and change things by using creative tools and tactics.
  • Seek solutions and alternatives to make changes more effective.
  • Make team decisions about which tools and solutions should be used.
  • Implement improvements, monitor the process, and constantly adapt!

Problem-Solving in Six Easy Steps

At this stage, by following the Management 3.0 principle of “Improving the system,” you can use the tools Celebration Grids , combined with Yay! Questions , to best engage the team in the problem-solving process, while keeping track of what is working well, what can be changed, and what new options exist.

Documenting everything is an integral part of the problem-solving process. By using Celebration Grids, you are gamifying the process and keeping the team flow and energy on a higher level.

Also read: What type of problem-solver are you?

Problem-solving is crucial for everyone: individuals, teams, leaders, organizations, and ultimately for all stakeholders because it empowers us to better control the environment and everything that is going on in our world. Try using Delegation Poker so that teams can become more empowered to solve problems both alongside leaders and within their organization. 

Today, the speed of problem solving is important, and that is why organizations must give more power and authority on a team level , so employees can react quickly and even prevent problems. As a leading indicator, the Management 3.0 tool Problem Time can help you measure the time spent on uncompleted problem-solving tasks and activities; this is a valuable add-on to “lead and cycle time” lagging indicators, with which you measure the time taken on completed tasks.

Developing and refining problem-solving skills through constant practice and experimentation can refine the ability to solve problems and address issues with more complexities.

We may face various challenges in our daily work, and effective problem-solving can make a difference.

Make a Difference with Problem-Solving

  • Problem-solving skills are important if you want to add more value . As an agilist, your objective is not to be perfect but to maximize the value you provide for all stakeholders. Start fast, deliver value early, manage failures and prioritize tasks by setting the urgency criteria.
  • Problem-solving skills are important if you need to improve your results. You have to accept the complexity of success factors and better understand the need for changes and improvements in a continually uncertain environment. Results depend on your problem-solving skills!
  • Problem-solving skills are important if you have to fix things that do not work. When your processes are not working as planned, problem solving will give you the structure and mechanisms to identify issues, figure out why things are broken, and take actions to fix them.
  • Problem-solving skills are important when you have to address a risk. Sharpen your problem-solving skills to anticipate future events better and increase the awareness of cause-and-effect relationships. This enables you to take the right actions and influence the outcomes if issues do occur.
  • Problem-solving skills are important if you work simultaneously on several projects. You should apply the same problem-solving techniques when you work on multiple projects, business functions, market segments, services, systems, processes, and teams. Standardize and scale!
  • Problem-solving skills are important when you want to seize the day. Problem solving is all about innovation , building new things, and changing the system into a better one. This can help us to identify opportunities even in challenging times and prepare us for the future. You can visualize the process with the Meddles Game to better understand your ideas, solutions, and activities. It is a great way to engage your team as you can build the problem-solving concept and it is an effective tool for influencing all stakeholders affected by the problem. 

Also read: Collaborative Leadership explained .

Solving complex problems may be difficult, but problems will be solved when we use the right tools. Besides the powerful Management 3.0 tools I already mentioned, as a big fan of Lean and Liberating structures, I think you can find lots of problem-solving techniques to use in your daily business. 

Here is my short list of tools and techniques:

  • 5 Whys – a great way to uncover the root cause is to understand the problem better. 
  • Fishbone analysis – for visual analysis of the root causes of a problem. Easy to combine with ‘5 Whys’ or ‘Mind mapping’ to brainstorm and determine the cause and effect of any problem.
  • Silent brainstorming – gives everyone a chance to participate in idea generation as not only the loudest people, but also the quiet ones, will participate equally. Everyone’s opinion has the same weight. 
  • Mind maps – structured visual diagrams to share your ideas, concepts, and solutions the same way your brain does. You explain the problems quickly, then share fresh ideas, and finally come to a team consensus that can lead to an effective solution. 
  • Six thinking hats – enable your team to consider problems from different angles, focusing on facts, creative solutions, or why some solutions might not work.
  • Agreement certainty matrix – another tremendous visual tool for brainstorming problems and challenges by sorting them into simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic domains to later agree on what approach should be used to solve the concrete problems affecting a team.  
  • Conversation café – enables the team to engage in productive conversations, with less arguing but more active listening, solving the problem in rounds of dialogues until reaching a consensus regarding the best problem-solving approach. 
  • Design thinking – when you are struggling for fresh ideas, the 5-step process will help you empathize with the problem, then begin defining and developing new ideas, before prototyping and testing them. 

Edward Deming’s PDCA is the most known concept for continuous improvement and problem solving. You can gamify your events using the Change Management Game , a card game where PDCA will help you define the problem, take action, collect feedback, and adopt the new solution.

The “carrot and stick” approach, or in HR language, “pay for performance,” does not work anymore, especially for roles that require problem-solving, creativity, and innovative thinking. Creative people need a higher level of authority and empowerment to self-manage challenges and problem scenarios. When leaders and organizations create such systems, they foster intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction among these people. Creatives are seeking self-actualization through their careers.

This is one more case which calls for Management 3.0’s Delegation Poker to define the levels of authority in terms of problem-solving issues, as well as Moving Motivators to define key motivators for increasing productivity and employee satisfaction by changing behavior.

Improving Employee Experience with Problem-Solving

1. Use problem solving as a key motivator – have in mind Millennials and Gen Z creative workers ’ affinity towards tasks in which they feel challenged and have a sense of meaning. Provide them with big and tough problems to solve and use challenging tasks to keep them constantly engaged.

2. Continuous improvement can make a difference – creatives seek a sense of purpose and think outside of the box, so encouraging the ‘How can we execute this task better?’ mindset and problem solving become powerful tools for creating sustainable corporate culture.

3. Don’t connect solving problems with rewards – it can kill the perceived intrinsic value of the activity; it will disengage and dissatisfy employees. Autonomy, trust, respect, and gratitude will do the job. 

4. Apply the seven rules for creative managers – unleash the power of diversity , and cooperation, rely on merits, optimize exploration, open boundaries, keep options open, and update your workplace. 

Improving Employee Experience with Problem-Solving

We start solving problems from a very early age (the alphabet, learning to eat, driving a bicycle etc.). Then, everyday activities sharpen our problem-solving skills and enable us to solve more complex issues. 

As an adult, you can still develop your problem-solving skills by:

  • Daily practicing of logic games, such as chess, and puzzles like Sudoku. 
  • Video games can teach you how to deal with failure and persist in achieving your goals.
  • Keep an idea journal or blog as a collection of all your ideas, thoughts, and patterns. 
  • Think outside of the box – take a different perspective to understand the problem better.
  • Practice brainstorming combined with mind mapping, working with your team.
  • Put yourself in new situations – take on a challenging project at work.
  • Start using the “what if” mindset in daily circumstances and test new approaches.
  • Read more books on creativity and articles which cover your areas of interest. 

I also believe coaching can help build creativity and problem-solving skills, encouraging people to take greater ownership of their work and commit to corporate goals. A coach can provide clear guidance as to what is important at the moment; they help people better, focus, and move into action. By asking powerful questions and challenging others to think outside of the box, the coach removes their barriers and lets them see the situation from a new perspective.

Coaching can provide structure so people develop their own expertise and insights to contribute better when problems arise and the pressure to succeed is growing.

The interview is an excellent opportunity to research a candidate’s problem-solving skills, and STAR questions should be related to their previous experience dealing with problems. A candidate with good problem-solving skills can quickly embed in the team and become a valuable asset for the company.

In my Agility in HR workshops , we regularly discuss interview questions. Some popular STAR questions are:

  • “If you cannot find a solution to a problem, how do you deal with the situation?”
  • “How do you react when faced with unexpected problems or challenges?”
  • “Describe an occasion when you had to adapt at the last minute. How did you handle this?”

Problem-solving requires the ability to identify a problem, find the root cause, create solutions, and execute them. All these steps are essential for achieving the desired results. 

Some of the skills that problem solvers must constantly sharpen are:

  • Collaborative communication . Clear communication is essential when you explain the problem and the solution to your teammates. During brainstorming sessions, asking the right questions to determine the root cause , as well as synergic collaboration are needed.
  • Active listening is important to prevent mistakes as  you can absorb the details your colleagues tell you about the problem. Use open-ended questions for clarification, and always be open to feedback and views that differ from yours.
  • Coachability. The willingness to accept feedback and the ability to improve. Learning from more experienced people, being curious to ask many questions, constructively using your ego, skipping excuses and blaming others, and accepting Feedback Wraps from your coach.
  • Decision making . Problems cannot be solved without risk-taking and bringing important decisions (including relevant data, levels of delegation, alternative solutions etc.) to the forefront.
  • Critical thinking . Be 100% objective when you try to find the cause of the problem. Skip ego trips and personal biases. Identify your mistakes in the thinking process and show personal accountability .
  • Research and data analysis . Proper research allows you to diagnose the actual problem, not just the symptoms. If the cause of the problem is not immediately apparent, you can use the power of data to discover the issue’s history, some patterns, future trends, etc.
  • Persistence . Trust in the problem-solving process you have designed and follow every step with patience and persistence; even when you fail repeatedly, do not give up. Keep moving and remember Thomas Edison’s quote: “I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.”

Skills of good problem-solvers

In the new VUCA world we now live in, problem solving is a crucial soft skill, and employers are actively seeking people with this skill set because they can prepare for problems before they arise. Problem solvers better identify opportunities, understand their environment, create a solution, and generate ideas that lead to great results and success.

According to a study made by LinkedIn Learning in August 2022 , future skills are rapidly changing, and problem solving is among the top soft skills employers search for from their candidates, as well as communication and leadership skills.

Using all aforementioned tools and practices from Management 3.0, following the guides, and sharpening your skills, will help you not only to be effective in resolving the problems that may arise, but also to solve them with enthusiasm and passion. They will create a higher level of engagement and collaboration in the team and help unleash people’s creativity and innovation. A win-win for everyone!

Photo by Parabol on Unsplash

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  1. Problem Solving Skills: Essential Skills in Providing Solutions to Personal and Professional Problems

    Problem Solving Skills: Essential Skills in Providing Solutions to Personal and Professional Problems Authors: Radhika Kapur University of Delhi The individuals, belonging to all communities,...

  2. PDF THE IDEAL PROBLEM SOLVER

    THE IMPORTANCE OF PROBLEM SOLVING New Views about Thinking and Problem Solving 3 Some Common Approaches to Problems 7 Mental Escapes I 0 The Purpose and Structure of This Book 12 Notes 13 • Suggested Readings 14 PART I A fRAMEWORK FOR USING KNOWLEDGE MORE EFFECTIVELY I 7 CHAPTER 2 A MODEL FOR IMPROVING PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS 19 The IDEAL ...

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    Problem solving and critical thinking refers to the ability to use knowledge, facts, and data to effectively solve problems. This doesn't mean you need to have an immediate answer, it means you have to be able to think on your feet, assess problems and find solutions.

  4. Introduction to Problem Solving Skills

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    Problem solving is an important component of mathematics across all phases of education. In the modern world, young people need to be able to engage with and interpret data and information. They need to become flexible thinkers capable of dealing with novel problems and situations and analysing their own and others' solutions to these.

  6. PDF A Problem Solving Approach to Designing and Implementing a Strategy to

    Problem-Solving Approach to Strategy Design and Implementation. The problem-solving approach to designing and implementing a strategy includes eight steps (see. Figure A): 1. Identify the Problem. 2. Analyze the Problem and Diagnose Its Causes. 3. Develop a Theory of Action.

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    Handbook on Problem-solving Skills 5 2 Causes of Poor Problem-Solving Ineffective or poor problem-solving can be the result of any of the following factors. These factors act like blinkers, constricting the perspective of person in the process of problem-solving. 1. Bounded Rationality: Propounded by Herbert Simon, the concept of bounded

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    Problem solving skills Lisa Gueldenzoph Snyder Mark J. Snyder Abstract Critical thinking is a learned skill that requires instruction and practice. Business education instructors at both the secondary and post-secondary levels can enhance students' critical thinking skills by (1) using instructional strategies that actively engage

  9. PDF An Analysis of the Relationship between Problem Solving Skills and ...

    Also, Totan (2011) examined the effect of the problem-solving skills training program on the 6th class primary school students' social-emotional learning skills. Similarly, relational studies on problem-solving skills are also included in the literature. Uysal (2007) conducted a study on the relationship between secondary school students ...

  10. 21 st Century Skill "Problem Solving": Defining the Concept

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    realistic problem-solving processes and learning outcomes can be transferred to real-world environments more easily (Chen et al., 2021). Therefore, it is necessary to examine the effect of PBL on problem-solving skills and student opinions. The research goal is to set the effect of PBL on problem-solving skills and opinions regarding PBL.

  12. (PDF) Problem solving in everyday office work—a diary study on

    Julia Warwas University of Hohenheim Abstract and Figures Contemporary office work is becoming increasingly challenging as many routine tasks are automated or outsourced. The remaining problem...

  13. PDF Problem-Solving Skills: Definitions and Examples

    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

  14. PDF Teaching Problem Solving and Decision Making

    A "problem" is a task, activity, or situation for which a solution is not immediately identified, known, or obtainable. Solving a problem, therefore, is the process of identifying a solution that resolves the initial perplexity or diffi-culty.

  15. PDF COMMUNICATION & PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS

    MMODULEODULE T TWOHREE • supporting recovery from a mental or substance use disorder • communication and problem-solving skills • supporting recovery from a mental or substance use disorder • communication and problem-solving skills MODULEMODULE T HREETWO 2 • how you can help • toolkit for families • www.heretohelp.bc.ca • • how you can help • toolkit for families • www ...

  16. The Development of Problem-Solving Skills for Aspiring Educational

    View Abstract View PDF Share Article. Jeremy D. Visone 10.12806/V17/I4/R3. Introduction. Solving problems is a quintessential aspect of the role of an educational leader. In particular, building leaders, such as principals, assistant principals, and deans of students, are frequently beset by situations that are complex, unique, and open-ended.

  17. PDF Problem Based Learning: A Student-Centered Approach

    Problem based learning is a student-centered educational method which aims to develop problem - solving skills through a self- directed learning as a life time habit and team work skills. Untidy, messy, ill structured situations ... Identify and discuss the important parts of the problem. 2.4.2 Tutorials in Small Teams Current knowledge about ...

  18. THE IMPORTANCE OF PROBLEM SOLVING IN MATHEMATICS CURRICULUM

    (PDF) THE IMPORTANCE OF PROBLEM SOLVING IN MATHEMATICS CURRICULUM PDF | The basic purpose of this research is to present how to solve a mathematics problem or real problem. In this...

  19. PDF ANALYTICAL THINKING AND PROBLEM-SOLVING

    4 ANALYTICAL THINKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING IN PRACTICE When you are faced with a problem or you must make a decision, the most important thing is to form a clear picture of the situation by collecting as much information about the issue as possible and analyse it. This will allow you to make the best possible decisions and find the

  20. (PDF) Problem-Solving Skills: Vital in Providing Solutions to various

    The main concepts that are taken into account in this research paper, understanding the meaning and significance of problem-solving skills, methods of leading to up-gradation of...

  21. (PDF) Problem Solving Skill: What is the Difference between

    ... Through education and teaching in schools, it is expected to be able to develop these problem-solving abilities. The results of the study [3] show that 100% of practitioners and experts...

  22. PDF Problem Solving Skill

    Practitioners view that problem-solving skills are important but difficult to teach because of the time and the students' inadequate prerequisite skills to do the learning. The results of this study can be a reference in developing the learning curriculum for pre-service science and mathematics teachers in the future .

  23. The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace

    Problem-Solving in Six Easy Steps Why is Problem-Solving so Important for Leaders, Teams, and Organizations? Problem-solving Techniques in the Workplace Better Employee Experience by Using Problem-Solving Tools from Management 3.0 How do Employees Develop Problem-Solving Skills? What Skills Make a Good Problem Solver?

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