The Importance of Good Problem Solving Skills


Most people would agree that anyone in a leadership and management role should have competent problem solving skills. But what does that mean and how do we acquire them? Every day managers are faced with making a multitude of decisions. Some will require prolonged thought, research and a deep level of scrutiny before a decision can be arrived at and others will be far less onerous to arrive at a suitable conclusion. Also some decisions just make themselves, for example, no one has to be told to go down a fire escape when the flames are licking at your coat tails behind you.


So what is the process that we go through when faced with making important business decisions? Information comes to us in many ways, whether it’s from a person simply asking a question, which invariably starts with “can I do…?” or “would it be ok if we…?” or where an incident occurs that requires selecting a course of action to solve an issue, at which point your decision making capability will be put to the test.


As stated, some decisions are easier to make than others; deciding whether you are going to take one lump or two in your tea is no challenge and faced with a minor medical incident, all organisations should have people trained in First Aid for such occasions where a decision has to be made about calling an ambulance or not.


However, making a strategic business decision relating to a new launch, potential recruitment decision, product development or investment will require the manager to exercise and employ a process of decision making that will usually fall into one of two categories. These can often be classified as either ‘creative problem solving’ which requires a degree of creativity or innovation to think in a more abstract or unconventional way. Or the manager could employ a recognised and specific decision making model to help arrive at a suitable conclusion.


When examining decision making models there are plenty of good tools to choose from. Decision making models come in various guises and are extremely useful to encourage the manager to bring structure and form to the process of analysing all the options open to them. Typical models range from a simple pros and cons list achieved by drawing a line down the middle of a sheet of paper to more sophisticated methods such as a Force Field Analysis tool, Pareto’s Law, Cause & effect analysis (Fishbone diagrams) decision making trees and wheels, SWOT analysis and many more, all of which are excellent ways to help managers make better and more informed decisions.


If one employs a decision making model of this nature the process will be totally self-contained in as much as it will guide the manager through the process step by step. Although they clearly have to populate the tool with alternative solution suggestions it will teach them to consider those alternatives and examine the various options open to them whilst assessing the potential consequences of each course of action.


Models are great for bringing structure and a certain discipline to decision making but we also need to apply a degree of creativity to be able to generate new, different, exciting and original thinking to solving issues and generating alternatives.


The sticking point is that very few of us are just ‘creative’ by nature. The majority of us do not possess the capacity to be naturally creative where we can effectively stare at a blank piece of paper and instantly generate ingenious solutions in order to make a good decision. Studies suggest only a small percentage of us are born with the gift and capacity to think creatively innately so most of us often need references to help us generate solutions.


There are different ways to do this and it can help if we consider using a solution from an unrelated issue as a start point (the reference) and work with it to morph that solution into a new or different idea to solve a different problem.


Sometimes an idea developed for something else can be used in a different way entirely. Most of us own a smartphone but did you know that in the 1990's, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory team was looking for ways to shrink cameras down for interplanetary travel and they came up with the camera-on-a-chip, also known as the CMOS sensor. Today, CMOS sensors are found in most of the world's camera phones.


Who says we even have to solve every problem we are faced with and are we even solving the right problem? It may seem counter intuitive but sometimes it can be creative to solve the problem by simply removing it as the only way to resolve the matter and move forward in a positive way. For example, say people in your office block constantly complain about having to wait for the lift as there’s always a queue for it and they have requested an additional lift shaft be fitted. Is the problem that there is only one lift and waiting is a real issue or it is that waiting is inevitable and they are simply bored whilst waiting? Could simply occupying them with something to do or watch, such as a TV screen or even mirrors to check their ‘look’ be enough to make the wait more tolerable and remove the need for an expensive project to sink a new lift shaft? It would certainly be less onerous and cost less and in this example we have removed a large and costly problem with a much smaller challenge but which is far less expensive and easier to solve.


Creative thinking may not be innate in most of us but also doesn’t have to be magical or mysterious and can be learned to some large degree. It is the process of allowing your brain to work for itself without the restrictions of procedures, traditions or the opinions of others. Our brain works in two halves, the right and left. The right deals with rhythm, music, colour and image; the left with logic, reasoning, analysis and numeracy. When we meet someone for the first time, the left brain remembers their name and the right brain remembers their face. Creative thinking to help with solving problems requires us to ‘shut down’ our left brain (which we tend to use most of the time) and make more use of our right brain to think in images rather than words.


A term often used to suggest creativity is ‘Thinking outside of the Box’ or my personal favourite, ‘To colour outside of the lines’. We can sometime be our own worst enemy when it comes to creativity by shackling ourselves to conventional thinking which can destroy the generation of new ideas before they ever see the light of day.


Most people will recall the simple 9 dots exercise where we have to find a way to join them up without the pen leaving the paper. The natural inclination is to assume that the dots are a box and therefore that is our limitation. Here we really can go outside of the box literally if we wish, because in this instance, if we don’t then we can’t solve it anyway. Conventional thinking restricts us to believing that we should use a normal size pen/pencil to join the dots. Why not use a paintbrush? Assuming nothing and questioning everything demands that we are more likely to generate more potential solutions.


Walt Disney used an interesting method to create ideas within the organisation. He referred to ‘Imagineering’ as the process used to aid creativity in finding an effective solution. He used three states, the Dreamer, the Realist and the Critic to achieve this. The ‘dreamer’ forms new ideas and processes, the ‘realist’ turns the ideas into tangible expressions, and the ‘critic’ acts as a filter to further refine ideas. This is a method that many of us (not naturally gifted) can use to generate solutions to problems and also evaluate their validity as to whether they could be adopted or not.


Maguire Training deliver a range of courses that help improve your skills in this area both face-to-face and on line. Here are two links where you can find out more about creative problem solving and problem solving models:


Call us for more information on 0333 5777 144 or complete an information request on each of these pages.

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