Problem solving is at the root of what management consultants do. Clients hire consultants to help overcome or eliminate obstacles to the clients’ goals – that is, to solve problems. Sometimes the work of a consultant involves “solving” problems that haven’t even materialized yet. And yet, even though problem solving forms the core of the management consultant’s function, it can be difficult to talk about the broad role problem solving plays from a zoomed-out perspective.
In this article, we plan to do just that. We’ll break down what, exactly, problem solving means in a business context, and we’ll look at what you can do to improve your problem solving abilities in a professional capacity.
Problem Solving Definition
Before we get into any specific problem solving strategies, let’s stop and ask: what is problem solving? It’s not as obvious as it might seem, even if there is something self-explanatory about the name. There are many different problem solving definitions, most of which vary according to context.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll borrow the Center for Management & Organization Effectiveness’ problem solving definition: “implementing processes that reduce or remove obstacles that are preventing you or others from accomplishing operational and strategic business goals.” Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive into problem solving skills.
Problem Solving Skills
Enhancing your problem solving skills isn’t the same as other forms of “upskilling,” like learning a new programming language. Problem solving is at the core of just about everything you do in your professional life. Deficient problem solving skills lead to poor performance and damage to relationships (personal and professional). All relationships have problems, of course, and resolving them relies on communications skills, empathy, cooperation, and more.
After you have used all your education, competencies, and analytical skills to fully understand a problem, you will need to use creativity to come up with a solution. Creativity involves connecting input (i.e. what you learn & experience) with intuition (the intelligence that underlays even your thinking mind) to bring about something new. Cultivating your creativity in other areas can help you strengthen the connections between cognition and intuition. This will help you tap into your creative energy when a job is on the line.
Interpersonal skills, such as emotional intelligence, empathy, teamwork, communication skills, and even mood management/mindfulness are all necessary components of professional problem solving. A significant share of professional problems that need solving involve human relationships. If you’re unable to consider others’ perspectives, to collaborate with others toward shared goals, and to practice purposeful communication, you will have difficulty resolving problems.
Of course, there are more conventional problem solving skills necessary for practicing effective problem solving. Developing your risk management and decision making skills is a necessity for improving your problem solving abilities. This can involve a delicate balance between intuition and analysis. And finally, there’s no way to improve as a problem solver if you don’t improve your ability to learn & synthesize new information. Be sure to improve your research skills!
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Problem Solving Steps
While every problem is unique and demands its own solution, there are some commonalities to the ways most or all problems are solved. We’ll take a look at these problem solving steps here.
Identify the Problem
This may seem self-explanatory, but this step is more involved than it appears at first glance. Problems are often like icebergs – only a small fraction shows above the surface. Identifying the problem involves a careful definition of just what the nature of the problem is. This is crucial, because it will also define how the problem can/must be solved.
Structure the Problem
This means taking a deep dive into the problem to understand what, exactly, is going wrong and why. Structuring the problem begins with careful observation, inspection, fact-gathering, and analysis to help illustrate a complete picture of the problem. This granular look at the inner workings of a problem will help define goals for the solution.
This step can be a bit hard to define, since any act of creativity involves some innate element of mystery. But what’s transferable about this step to any problem is that, after fully understanding a problem, a temporary retreat for deep contemplation can help bring powerful ideas to the surface.
Make a Decision
Many problems have no perfect solution, only many imperfect solutions. One of the more difficult stages will be deciding which course of action to pursue. This involves carefully considering the pros and cons of the various possible solutions and deciding how they fit with your goals.
Implement the Solution
This is where the decided course of action is put into play. Implementing a solution is seldom straightforward. It often involves many steps and a great deal of coordination among different actors.
Monitor Implementation Along the Way
This is crucial, since almost no problem is solved immediately. Solutions are processes that require evaluation to ensure success.
Application to Business Problem Solving
Virtually every business is united in the essential struggle of pursuing long-term goals while managing short term problems, obstacles, and contingencies. Indeed, many business owners will tell you that owning and operating a business can feel like one long problem. Business owners seek help from management consultants to solve problems. Improving your problem solving skills will, by definition, make you a better consultant.
On some level, we can look at a great deal of the modern business education – statistics, economics, marketing – as being specific, granular forms of problem solving. Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy to hear the concept of “problem solving” fuzzily through the gauze of corporate speak. But it really is worth taking a step back to appreciate how central your skills & characteristics as a problem solver define your professional life. If you’re an aspiring or current management consultant, consider this your invitation to take a deeper look at the ways you can make yourself the best possible problem solver.
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