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Focus on: complex problem solving skills, and how to build this soft skill

Complex problems don't have one simple solution. And this can challenge us as we move through our careers. Gaining more responsibility for how to solve complex problems means we need to spend time focusing on our professional development to improve our problem solving skills – we don’t just pick this skill up naturally. 

There are two main parts to improving complex problem solving: Firstly we must be able to explore complex problems then we must be able to analyse them and their potential solutions. In this blog post we will focus on how to analyse complex problems and solutions. 

Ideas, ideas, ideas 

Isn't it great when you're the person that comes up with a shiny new idea to fix the problem? With complex problems everyone might not agree on the optimal solution, or often, solving these problems is about a combination of actions or activities. 

It’s crucial to start by generating lots of ideas and possible solutions if we are going to have the best possible chance of successfully solving a complex problem. Having more options for possible solutions helps us avoid selecting the first answer we come up with, which might not always be the best solution. 

So your professional development target for problem solving skills should be to create solutions for complex problems by generating a range of options – as many as you can.

Top tips:

Evaluate your ideas 

Isn't hindsight a great thing? One of the things that make complex problems challenging to deal with is that sometimes the secondary goals are not always known at the outset. Instead, they emerge as the complex problem is explored, and some of the trade-offs between different choices emerge. 

To avoid potentially negative consequences, you and your team should consider what the possible effects might be  in advance. Here is where you continue to use problem solving skills, not just in coming up with the solution, but being able to evaluate those solutions. 

In evaluating your options, you’ll want to consider:

Primary goals

The main focus should be on the primary goal that you are trying to achieve, but don't forget to evaluate your solutions ability to meet the secondary goals too.

These are those other things that your solution must also be able to do. For example deliver your product to more customers, whilst also being considerate of carbon emissions.

Different perspectives

Where a solution may be a strength for someone, this could be a weakness in someone else's eyes.

For example you may decide to expand your delivery area to deliver to more customers, but your staff may see this as a weakness as greater travel distance means they can’t make as many deliveries in a day.

The impact your solutions may have

Does it lead to any secondary effects? Is this beneficial, okay or a problem?

For example you may increase working hours of staff in order to be able to make more deliveries, however perhaps staff will not be happy with the new working hours and leave.

A great problem solver is able to respond in a calm, measured way to evaluate the situation and adapt plans to still meet the primary goal. Working on this step means you can help avoid unexpected surprises and increase the chances of your solution being successful.

Analyse the problem

The information we have about complex problems is often unclear, so we need more in depth-analysis to problem solve and reach conclusions. Logical reasoning is about using a series of rational, systematic steps to go from known information to a justifiable conclusion. In particular, inductive reasoning can support you to develop and test hypotheses. 

Get to know the difference between the two main types of logical reasoning: Deductive and inductive.

  • Deductive reasoning – what we can predict based on what we know. For example, we know the delivery vans can hold 40 parcels. We know we have two spare vans. Therefore we know we can deliver 80 more parcels a day. 
  • Inductive reasoning – how we can induce or create general rules based on what we see in the world. For example, we notice there are less deliveries made between 8am and 10am. We might induce that less deliveries are made between these hours because of rush hour traffic. Therefore we change the working hours of delivery drivers to start after 10am to avoid this. 

You can use logic trees as a visual way to lay out different parts of the problem and the consequences of making different logics. Then you’ll need to make good hypotheses by ensuring they are clear, specific and testable.

Graphic split into 4 quadrants showing top left: Inductive, top right: a pyramid from red, yellow and green, bottom left: a pencil writing notes on a piece of paper, bottom right: a blue circle with the quote "create general rules from a situation" inside.
Graphic split into 4 quadrants showing top left: Decuctive, top right: an upside down pyramid from red, yellow and green, bottom left: a sparkling purple crystal ball, bottom right: a blue circle with the quote "reaching conclusions from rules" inside.

As problems we work on become more complex they are often bigger and have higher potential costs to the business or organisation. Therefore it is a key soft skill to be able to analyse the problem further to ensure the best next steps are taken to test hypotheses for solving the problem. 

Working on this skill means you play a key part in working towards solutions for complex problems and your colleagues can see that you do this methodically and in detail so they can rely on you to make careful decisions as to which hypothesis to test and which resulting action will be taken to best support your organisation.

Making time for reflection

We all must use our problem solving skills everyday at work. Creating a specific, measurable professional development target can help you build this skill.

Allow yourself time to reflect on your current abilities using a tool like Benchmark, set a clear target for what to focus on improving, use the information in the Universal Framework and Launchpad to know how to improve and finally find opportunities to apply this learning in your role.

Then when it comes back around to time to review your professional development targets you will have the pleasure of reflecting on your opportunities and celebrating your progress.

Taking this time will mean that as you grow through your career and are faced with more complex challenges you can feel confident in your understanding of complex problems and have techniques to work towards solving them. You could drive forward the next big solution in your role.

For more information on all of the steps of Problem Solving take a look at the Universal Framework. You can also check your own skill score on Benchmark.