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What you do is a lot more important than what’s on your resume. Problem-solving is an analytical skill that many hiring managers look for when reviewing candidates, so questions about how you solve problems should be anticipated in technical interviews. Demonstrating analytical thinking or the ability to break down large, complex problems, and then effectively communicating the solutions is often just as valuable, if not more so, than the baseline technical skills required for a job. In this blog post, I’ll explore methods for how to improve your problem-solving skills.

Follow the IDEAL Problem-Solving Method – Tips and Techniques

If you have a problem in which there isn’t a single best answer, you may use heuristic methods to arrive at a solution. A popular and quick to remember heuristic problem-solving method is IDEAL:

  • Identify the problem and gather information.
  • Define the context of the problem.
  • Explore possible solutions.
  • Act on the best solution.
  • Look back and reflect

Identify the problem and gather information

The first step in the creative problem solving process is to gather information about the problem. In order to effectively solve the problem, you need to know as much about the problem as possible. Be curious, ask questions, gather as many facts as possible, and begin to make logical deductions rather than assumptions. Ask questions about the problem. What do you know about the problem and what are your known unknowns? Can you diagram the process into separate steps or break it down into smaller chunks?

Define the context of the problem

There are multiple strategies that may be used to identify the root cause of a problem. A root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method that assists us with answering the question of why a problem occurred. The RCA uses a specific set of steps, with associated tools like the 5 Why Analysis” or the Cause and Effect Diagram, in order to determine your problem and its origin, why it occurred in the first place, and then you may resolve the problem so it won’t happen again. However, it’s important to note that RCA assumes a singular root cause of problems, which might not be the best way to think about problem solving because problems tend to be multicausal.

glasses with crumpled paper

Explore possible solutions

Once the underlying cause is identified and the scope of the issue is defined, the next step is to explore possible solutions to resolve our problem. It’s important to generate as many solutions as possible before we analyze the solutions or try to implement them.

There are many different methods for generating solutions, and when we have many different solutions in hand, we need to analyze these solutions to determine the effectiveness of each. One thing I like to consider when weighing multiple possible solutions is a cost/benefit analysis for solving the problem at hand, but also solving other problems that might not even be directly related to the main problem you’re solving. If it takes 20% more effort but solves a bunch of other issues that happen, it’s worth doing but that isn’t always considered if your sole focus is on the original problem.

One tool that can be useful for generating possible solutions is brainstorming.  The ultimate goal is to generate as many ideas and questions as you can, in a fixed amount of time. Although brainstorming is best done with a group, this can be practiced individually. Employers will often assess a candidate’s potential fit on a team through collaborative problem-solving challenges, as this is an important component of culture fit.

business meeting 

Act on the best solution.

In the previous step, you should have eliminated many of the possible solutions. With a short list of possible solutions you can do a final analysis to come up with the most optimal solution(s) to your problem, and then you can move forward with ideas for implementing your solution.

Look back and reflect

In problem solving it is always beneficial to look back and double check and interpret your solution. Basically, check to see if you used all your available information at hand and that your solution is optimal. Doing this will provide a learning opportunity and will assist you with predicting what strategies to use to solve future problems.

We went through IDEAL- now what?

The best way to become a stronger problem-solver is to challenge your thinking. Use a checklist initially, but then try to step away and see if you can organically make inquisitive thinking a habit of mind. When you run into a colleague and she has a problem and you have five minutes, try delving in and just start by asking questions. Use your intuition to figure out how she is talking about this problem, and perhaps there is a question or two you can ask her about the problem that can help her with rethinking her problem. Taking that approach to problems can often help you move forward in a more creative way than just immediately serving up sub-optimal solutions.

Conversely, if you are not sure how to solve a problem, it is okay to ask for input, especially if you’re in an interview. Problem solving is a process and a learned skill and it’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes. No one knows everything so it’s okay and encouraged to ask for help when you don’t have an immediate answer.

As you’re preparing to ace your next interview, check out our previous blog posts, 7 Tips for Answering Interview Questions, focusing on common interview questions with tips on answering them accordingly.

Additional Resources

https://hbr.org/2015/11/get-more-innovative-by-rethinking-the-way-you-think

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-science-of-problem-solving/

https://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/problem_solving/

https://rubberduckdebugging.com/