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How to Use Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace

"We've been stuck at it for a week now," thought Frank to himself. His team came across a simple bin-packing problem surrounding consecutive character strings that were seemingly impossible to solve, and had been running into the same error message every time someone hit the ‘Compile’ button.

The new guy on his team (his first day), who had been quiet the whole day, walked to the whiteboard and started jotting down something. When he was done, five minutes later, a solution pattern popped right out the whiteboard.

"Gosh! How did he do that?"

Well, we'll find out. Here's what we'll be covering in this article:

- What exactly is problem-solving?

- What will be the employer or manager looking for in you?

- How to approach a workplace problem?

- Problem-solving techniques in the workplace

  • Step 1: Thoroughly understand the problem 
  • Step 2: Define the problem
  • Step 3: Strategize a solution
  • Step 4: Find alternate solutions
  • Step 5: Evaluate solutions and document everything
  • Step 6: Choose a solution
  • Step 7: Implement
  • Step 8: Monitor progress and make modifications accordingly

- What essential problem-solving skills do employers search for during the interview?

- How to highlight problem-solving skills in your resume?

What exactly is problem-solving?

Problems are a massive part of what we do in our day-to-day lives, be it at your home or workplace. 

Problem-solving is the complete process of understanding and defining the problem, brainstorming a solution, finding alternatives, implementing the best solution, and making adjustments based on the outcome.

What do hiring managers look for?

One's problem-solving ability is a harmonious accord between instinct and immense practice. As your technical skills age with experience, so does your ability to identify patterns and solve problems effectively.

Almost each and every employer looks for effective problem-solving skills in a candidate when making a hiring decision. They look for an aspirant's natural talent to dig up patterns, look at the problem with a fresh perspective, and be realistic while providing solutions. 

How to approach a workplace problem?

During computer science classes, you will find two types of students.

The first batch has a mindset that algorithms and data structures are only useful for passing the finals and getting an edge over others in interviews.

The second batch loves programming and aspires to write codes from scratch for each new project that they come across.While both mindsets may be partially correct, they do not hold up much.

In real-life situations and as part of an organization, your job drastically changes to one objective only: 'write the right amount of good code.'

For most projects, you will need to write quick, efficient codes to overcome difficult roadblocks. And the only way to achieve that skill is by getting acquainted with as many problems as possible.

Solve as many problems as possible. Learn as many Data Structures and Algorithms as you can. Get acquainted with the basics of reusing a chunk of code. Make StackOverflow your default homepage.

Does that seem too groundbreaking? Let us simplify it for you.

Problem-solving techniques in the workplace

See, a lot of people understand the problem at hand and the syntax or logic that might explain the issue. The primary thing you need to learn is how to convert your thoughts into code to all the creative geniuses out there.

If you need a comprehensive set of instructions, here are the problem-solving steps that you can adopt in your day-to-day lifestyle. This procedure applies not only to coding problems but also to other general hiccups.

While some have the mental affluence to solve problems on the go, keep practicing these daily, and you too will develop critical thinking skills.

Step 1: Thoroughly understand the problem

The first and most crucial step in solving a problem is to comprehend the standing concepts behind it. Believe us when we say this, a lot of employees jump to providing suggestions before actually understanding what the problem is.

A quick way to gauge your understanding is verifying if you can explain the problem to someone else. This also ties into your communication skills, and employers will gauge your ability to converse issues and solutions effectively. It is, thus, also one of the essential interview preparation tips for you.

Hiring managers have a behavioral question that they like asking, which revolves around the following:

"How will you be explaining a complex technical concept to a person who is not very sound technically?"

Ask yourself these questions and make a note of the solutions as you go.

  • What exactly is the end goal?
  • What are the variables?
  • Do you understand every concept revolving the problem?
  • Are you familiar with the provided measurement units?
  • What information is missing?
  • Is there any unnecessary information?
  • Can you verify the information from a bona fide source? 

Step 2: Define the problem

The next step in this process is accumulating every bit of necessary information so that you can start assembling a solution. Now, this isn't as easy as it sounds, and you can effortlessly mess up things during proceedings.

Strangely, at this time, do not focus on the solution. Instead, focus on defining the question.

Therefore, instead of saying 'the sale numbers need to be consistent in the next quarter,' say 'the sale numbers are inconsistent.'

Based on the information you collected in step 1, start separating the facts from estimations. Analyze the procedures that have been used previously and make precise adjustments based on the company policies.

Step 3: Strategize a solution

Now that you have understood the problem and defined it, start strategizing a solution for it based on your findings. Workplace solutions can be majorly categorized into two different kinds, i.e. tactical solutions and strategic solutions.

A tactical solution is a short-term fix for a standing obstacle, more like a workaround for an issue. Imagine reusing a piece of code from your last project to get around that pesky error message in your new one.

A strategic solution, on the other hand, is a long-term fix for an issue. Strategic solutions involve using a comprehensive series of steps to find the overall architecture of a problem. 

Usually, workplaces adopt the following problem-solving strategies into their policies.

  • Use logical reasoning
  • Recognize patterns
  • Reverse engineer the problem
  • Try a different point of view
  • Consider worst-case scenarios
  • Relate to a more straightforward real-life problem
  • Data organization
  • Prepare a visual representation
  • Take all possibilities into account
  • Intelligent guessing and testing

Your goal as an employee should be to become as fluent in these strategies as possible. Once you can naturally zoom into the problem, you will be able to form a strategy within minutes, without having to write anything down.

Are you starting to understand how the new guy deduced a solution that quickly?

Step 4: Find alternate solutions

Keeping the goals and objectives in mind, understand that there's always more than one way to skin a cat. Invite your team members and other experienced guys to brainstorm ideas alongside you.

For each problem, you should be able to find at least THREE different points of view or solutions, each with a unique USP.

Here's a neat little trick you may find useful someday in your career. Invite everyone associated with the project to this brainstorming session. Making sure that everybody gets equal participation is one of the ways you can exhibit your leadership skills while forging strong workplace relationships.

Step 5: Evaluate solutions and document everything

Now that you have found alternate solutions as well, it's time to evaluate these solutions. You will need to assess each solution based on various factors and list down all the pros and cons of each alternative you found in solution 4.

Create a document or spreadsheet listing down the USPs of each alternative and the positive and negative consequences thereby. You can go on adding other columns such as budget constraints, time allocation, resource requirements, workforce, and other relevant data.

The ability to quickly evaluate solutions ties into your management skills. A manager will be able to evaluate and implement solutions based on such factors quickly. Train yourself to find as many parameters as you can find to analyze solutions effectively. 

Step 6: Choose a solution

Basically, your main objective is to find one effective solution out of all the ones provided on the list. The solution you choose depends on various parameters, which can be one or all of the following:

  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Duration
  • Efficiency
  • Practicality
  • Company policies and procedures

You can promote strong work ethics by running the chosen solution by everyone in your team or involved in the project before implementing it. Also, select the employees who will be actively implementing it, and ask for their feedback.

Step 7: Implement

Implementing a solution does not merely mean diving headfirst with anything that you do. After you have collected the feedback and communicated the solution to everybody involved, here's what you will need to do next.

First, redefine the objectives, in brief, to help get a better idea of the end goal. Develop a simple action plan with defined timelines for the solution that you agreed upon in the step above.

Implement the chosen solution according to the action plan. Then, identify the measurable parameters to track success and failure rates.

Finally, set up communication channels for regular feedback and a contingency plan in case of a failure.

Step 8: Monitor progress and make modifications accordingly

The last problem-solving step involves actively monitoring how the solution performs in real life and if it meets the end goal for which it was adopted in the first place.

Tally how the solution functions compared to how you expected it to perform and document all changes. Check the feedback channel for any discrepancy or issues that arise during the process.

If you feel that any modification will further optimize the process, implement it after running it with your team.

Trivia:

Improving problem-solving skills for programmers

  • Understand the question and classify it as Corner-case or Edge-case
  • Simplify and optimize your steps
  • Write line-by-line pseudo code, focusing on the logic and steps rather than the syntax
  • Translate it into a code
  • Debug and remove repetitions
  • Write comments to help you understand
  • Get feedback regularly
  • Practice again

What essential problem-solving skills do employers search for in interviews?

Problem-solving in the workplace is one of the most sought-after skills in any organization. During the interview, if you can highlight your ability to find creative solutions quickly along with your technical skills, you definitely have a better chance of making it to the next round.

Hiring managers tend to leave specific questions open-ended; the notion being that without a trail for the candidate to follow, they'll be able to understand better how the candidate thinks.

Some of the crucial problem-solving skills that employers look for in the candidate include the following:

Teamwork

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." – Helen Keller

Effective problem-solving encompasses teamwork. As a problem-solver (and a leader), you need to show empathy towards your teammates, develop effective feedback channels, and use their input to solve the problem at hand.





Listening skills

A good listener in the workplace will be able to gather more valuable information and then use them to find unique solutions in the least possible time. Additionally, an active listener encourages every team member to get involved in the problem-solving steps, listens to their feedback, and comes up with a profitable solution.

However, 'saying' that you have good listening skills outright defeats the purpose.

During the interview, maintain your composure and LISTEN quietly to the problem at hand. Understand the problem and its root cause; only then provide a solution.

Communication

Irrespective of the nature of a problem, you need to be able to communicate the issue and any possible solution effectively to everybody else involved in the project. You need to brush up your delivery skills and learn which points to communicate first and last.

Interviewers may either ask your proficiency with various communication channels such as e-mail, phone, and text or give you a behavioral task and test your ability to communicate with others in real-life situations.

Creativity and critical thinking

"You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." - Maya Angelou

Employers in this day and age are always on the lookout for an innovative thinker, one who can see the problem with a new set of eyes and bring a unique perspective to the team. You need to be able to establish the balance between cause and effect quickly, anticipate long-term effects of a solution that you implement, and lead your team to a new direction when stuck.

Decision-making

More often than not, decision-making is closely tied to an employee's problem-solving ability. Besides implementing solutions that your team comes up with, you should also be able to foresee the long-term effects and prevent catastrophes.

With quality technical interview preparation courses, you can further understand the importance of this step.  

How to highlight problem-solving skills in your resume?

Your resume is the first document that a hiring manager sees. The experience and skills you mention in your resume can help you secure an interview if it catches the recruiter's attention.

The first approach you can adopt is highlighting your analysis and problem-solving skills right under the hard skills. This approach shows that you are confident in your technical skills and can find and implement work-based solutions efficiently.

For a full-stack web developer, the following problem-solving skills can be mentioned.

Skills:

Critical and creative thinking and proficient in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, NPM, Database Storage, Ruby on Rails. Good at problem-solving and working in teams.

Secondly, you can list your problem-solving ability under the work experience section. This is an excellent way to highlight your job experience and emphasizes that you learn and implement these skills in your work.

Example

  • Analyzed customer service feedback to predict interest in a sales campaign to attract a target audience group.
  • Documented the standard processes and scripts using specialized software solutions which led to customer satisfaction increased by 45% in a quarter.
  • Researched and launched a mobile app that reduced the school pickup time by 21 minutes.
  • Altered the inventory safeguard protocols during hurricane season, saving $1 million in wastage.

Apart from using problem-solving skills in your workplace, a quick way to develop your skills is to ask many questions. Only by asking questions and analyzing the information at hand can you build a workplace reputation as someone who handles challenging situations wisely.