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The receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas
This skill is all about being able to effectively receive information - whether it comes from customers, colleagues or stakeholders.

Initially, the skill steps concentrate on being able to listen effectively to others - including remembering short instructions, understanding why others are communication and recording important information.

Individuals then focus on how they demonstrate that they are listening effectively, thinking about body language, open questioning and summarising and rephrasing.

Beyond that, the focus is on being aware of how they might be being influenced by a speaker, through tone and language.

The final steps are about critical listening - comparing perspectives, identifying biases, evaluating ideas and being objective.


The oral transmission of information or ideas
This skill is all about how to communicate effectively with others, being mindful of whether they are talking to customers, colleagues or other stakeholders and in different settings.

Initially, this skill focuses on being able to speak clearly - first with well known individuals and small groups and then with those who are not known.

The next stage is about being an effective speaker by making points logically, by thinking about what listeners already know and using appropriate language, tone and gesture.

Beyond that, individuals focus on speaking engagingly through use of facts and examples, visual aids, and their expression and gesture.

Beyond that stage, speakers will be adaptive to the response of their listeners and ready for different scenarios. The final steps focus on speaking influentially - using structure, examples, facts and vision to persuade listeners.

Problem Solving

The ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge
This skill focuses on how to solve problems, recognising that while part of Problem Solving is technical know-how and experience, there are also transferable tools that individuals can develop and use.

The first steps focus on being able to follow instructions to complete tasks, seeking help and extra information if needed. The next stage focuses on being able to explore problems by creating and assessing different potential solutions. This includes more complex problems, without a simple technical solution.

Beyond this, the focus is on exploring complex solutions - thinking about causes and effects, generating options, and evaluating those options. This extends into analysis using logical reasoning and hypotheses.

Finally, individuals implement strategic plans to solve complex problems, assess their success, and draw out learning for the future.


The use of imagination and the generation of new ideas
Creativity is the complement to Problem Solving, and is about generating innovations or ideas which can then be honed through the problem-solving process.

The first few steps focus on the individual's confidence in imagining different situations and sharing their ideas.

The focus is then on generating ideas - using a clear brief, making improvements to something that already exists and combining concepts.

Individuals then apply creativity in the context of their work and their wider life. They can build off this to develop ideas using tools like mind mapping, questioning, and considering different perspectives.

The most advanced steps focus on building effective innovation in group settings and by seeking out varied experiences and stimuli. Finally, individuals support others to innovate, by sharing tools, identifying the right tools for the situation and through coaching.

Staying Positive

The ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals
This skill is all about individuals being equipped to manage their emotions effectively and being able to remain motivated, and ultimately to motivate others, even when facing setbacks.

The early steps focus on identifying emotions - particularly feeling positive or negative. Building off that is the ability to keep trying - and then staying calm, thinking about what went wrong, and trying to cheer up and encourage others.

The focus then turns to identifying new opportunities in difficult situations, sharing those, and adapting or creating plans accordingly. At more advanced steps, individuals identify and manage risks and gains in opportunities.

Finally, individuals support others to stay positive by managing their own response, helping others to see opportunities and creating plans to achieve them.

Aiming High

The ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them
This skill is about being able to plan effectively - both to achieve organisational goals, and also to set their own personal development targets. Initially, this is about knowing when something is too difficult, and having a sense of what doing well looks like for an individual.

The focus is then about working with care and attention, taking pride in success and having a positive approach to new challenges. Building on this, individuals set goals for themselves, informed by an understanding of what is needed, and then be able to order and prioritise tasks, secure resources and involve others effectively.

At the higher steps, the focus is creating plans informed by an individual's skill set, with clear targets, and building on external views. At the most advanced level, individuals develop long-term strategies. These are informed by an assessment of internal and external factors, structured through regular milestones and feedback loops.


Supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal
This skill is relevant not only for individuals in positions of management with formal power, but also for individuals working with peers in teams.

At the earliest stages, the focus is on basic empathy - understanding their own feelings, being able to share them, and recognising the feelings of others. The focus is on managing - dividing up tasks, managing time and sharing resources, managing group discussions and dealing with disagreements.

Beyond that, individuals build their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and those of their teams. This allows them to allocate tasks effectively. They then build techniques to mentor, coach and motivate others. At the highest steps, individuals will be able to reflect on their own leadership style and understand its effect on others.

Ultimately, they should be able to build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, and adapt their leadership style to the situation.


Working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal
This skill applies to working within both formal and informal teams, and also with customers, clients or other stakeholders. Initially, this is about individuals fulfilling expectations around being positive, behaving appropriately, being timely and reliable and taking responsibility. This extends to understanding and respecting diversity of others' cultures, beliefs and backgrounds.

The next steps focus on making a contribution to a team through group decision making recognising the value of others' ideas and encourage others to contribute too.Beyond that, individuals improve their teams through managing conflict and building relationships beyond the immediate team. At the top steps, individuals focus on how they influence their team through suggesting improvements and learning lessons from setbacks.

Ultimately, individuals support the team by evaluating others strengths and weaknesses and bringing in external expertise and relationships.

To achieve Step 10, individuals will show that they can create a range of solutions for complex problems and then evaluate their positive and negative effects. 

In the previous step, individuals looked at how to create a variety of solutions for complex problems and deciding which of them were feasible to create a manageable shortlist. In this step, individuals evaluate those solutions to choose the optimal solution or combination of solutions.

Building blocks

The building blocks of this step are learning:

  • How to evaluate a shortlist of possible solutions 
  • How to think about secondary effects

Reflection questions

  • How might you choose between different solutions to a complex problem?
  • Why is it important to know what you want to achieve? 
  • What do we mean by secondary effects?
  • Why is it important to consider these when working on complex problems?

What you need to know

Evaluating possible solutions

When considering how to choose between possible solutions to a complicated problem in Step 5 we used the pros and cons to think about the positive and negative effects of a potential solution. 

For complex problems, it is essential to start by thinking about what the primary goal is that one is trying to achieve, but also what some of the secondary goals are:

  • The primary goal is the main thing that you are trying to achieve. For example, how to improve the range of wildlife in a park. This is usually posed as the main problem or question.
  • The secondary goals are those things that also matter. These are things that our solution also has to be able to do. For example, while we want the range of wildlife in a park to increase, our secondary goals might be that we do not want to spend any more money, or that we also want there to be more visitors to the park. These secondary goals, therefore, also act as constraints on what the solution will do.

Things to consider

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. 

It is also important to remember that not everyone will see the strengths and weaknesses in the same way, depending on their diverse perspectives and whether they have other goals that they are trying to achieve from the solution. Something which is an advantage to one person might be a disadvantage to another – for example, more parking might make it easier for someone to travel to the park. Still, for the local resident, the additional pollution and traffic from more people driving to the park is a significant disadvantage.


How to think about secondary effects

When we think about complex problems, we have probably already done some research, thought about causes and effects and how those link together.

Another challenge of complex problems is that solving part of them might lead to secondary effects which can negative impacts that we do not initially expect. For example, trying to increase wildlife in a local park through hiring more park wardens might lead to a budget shortage for the council, so they then reduce spending on something else like street cleaning. This makes the town dirtier and more polluted and reduces wildlife across the town.


The importance of evaluation

Therefore, it is important to evaluate potential solutions not just in terms of whether they help to achieve the primary and secondary goals, but also whether they will have any secondary effects that could be damaging.


Advice for


Why this skill step matters in education

When you have a complex problem to deal with in school, college or university, it will be important to think about what you are trying to achieve. What is your primary goal? There may also be secondary goals to consider. A secondary goal matters too. It is something that your solution to the complex problem also needs to be able to do. For example, your primary goal might be to gain a place at a particular college or university for example as your next step. The secondary goals might be that you may need certain grades in particular subjects in order to secure that place. Secondary goals can act as constraints. The secondary goals are not always clear when you begin tackling a complex problem – this can be a problem in itself! As you explore the problem, it can become even more challenging as you may need to consider different perspectives – an advantage, a positive to one person, may be a disadvantage, a negative, to another. Discussing ideas with friends, teachers and tutors can help you evaluate the positive and negatives effects of a range of solutions.

Why this skill step matters in the workplace

At work, you may find as you solve one part of a complex problem, secondary effects are revealed, causing issues that were not expected. In any business or organisation these effects will need to be considered in advance and dealt with promptly so as to not have any negative consequences. Being able to respond in a calm, measured way to evaluate the situation, and adapt plans as appropriate will mean the primary goal can still be achieved.

Why this skill step matters in the wider world

Wherever or whenever a complex problem is being dealt with it is important to consider carefully any potential solutions: both in terms of whether they help achieve the primary and secondary goals, but also whether any secondary effects could cause further problems or be damaging in some way. Moving to a new town or city far away from family and friends, for example, may be very exciting and fulfill the primary goal of living, learning and working in a new place but if the secondary effect is someone is dreadfully homesick because it is too far or too expensive to travel home regularly they may need to reconsider the location for a move. Being able to consider both the positive and negative effects of a range of solutions is helpful.

How to practise this skill step

To best practise this step of Problem Solving, apply what you have learnt to a real-life situation. Choose one or more of the activities below, remind yourself of the key points and strategies in the step, and have a go!

  • Take a complex problem, such as the increased sedentary lifestyle of many children and adults, and explore the causes and effects of this problem. Write down your ideas as you create a range of options and carry out a feasibility study. Finally make a recommendation based on a review of the primary and secondary goals, the advantages and the disadvantages, and share an appreciation of potential secondary effects.
  • Choose a complex problem of which you are aware to focus on from home, education or your workplace. Write down your ideas as you create a range of options and carry out a feasibility study. Finally make a recommendation based on a review of the primary and secondary goals, the advantages and the disadvantages, and share an appreciation of potential secondary effects.
  • Support a friend with a complex problem so that they too can begin to create solutions for complex problems by evaluating the positive and negative effects of a range of options.

Build this step

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Teaching It

To teach this step:

The teacher can introduce a model of a complex problem that the learners can work through together. For example, how to help learners do better in their exams (it is essential to pick a model that learners will be able to relate to, and have some prior knowledge they can deploy). 

  • In this way, teachers can help to highlight in conversation with the learners what the primary goal might be – to see an improvement in exam grades. 
  • There can then be a discussion of secondary goals – what are the constraints on what is possible. For example, it might not be possible to hire new teachers, or to extend the length of the school day. 
  • Learners can then generate a range of possible ideas to solve this complex problem, shortlisting them to those that seem feasible.
  • Working in pairs to support conversation and reflection, learners can evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of their different solutions and to propose their recommendations.
  • They should also talk about any of the secondary effects that might emerge from their proposed solution. For example, stopping doing any learning that isn’t linked to the exam might have the negative secondary effect of stopping learners developing skills that help them to learn better or to stay positive in difficult situations. Only thinking about exams might also make the learners less employable in the future if they don’t have any other experiences to draw on. 

This structured exercise could be extended by giving learners another complex problem to grapple with – perhaps something which is a challenge in their community.

Reinforcing it

The key concepts here that lend themselves to regular reinforcement across other learning are those of primary goals, secondary goals and secondary effects. These ideas can be revisited in lots of areas of education. 

Assessing it 

This step is best assessed through posing a complex problem to learners and asking them to work through solving that problem. This might also take the form of an extended project linked to subject learning. You might want to use this as an opportunity to see evidence of Step 6-10 looking to see that learners can:

  • Differentiate between simple, complicated and complex problems.
  • Build their understanding of complex problems by carrying out relevant primary or secondary research.
  • Explore the causes and effects of complex problems.
  • Create a range of options, and filter those down according to what is feasible.
  • Make a recommendation based on an explicit review of the primary and secondary goals, the advantages and disadvantages of the options and an appreciation of secondary effects.

Build this step

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Build it at work: 

This step is relevant to individuals who handle complex problems at work. To build this step in the work environment, managers could:

Show an individual an example which they can follow. To do this a manager could introduce the example complex problem of improving a company’s financial performance. Through this demonstration they could illustrate key stages of the process:

  • Identify a primary goal: this might be to increase company revenue.
  • Identify secondary goals to reveal the constraints on what is possible. For example, it might not be possible to sell more of a particular product due to constraints on production capability.
  • Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of their different solutions in order to arrive at recommendations.
  • The model could illustrate the concept of ‘secondary effects’. In our example of improving revenue, a secondary effect of the solution to launch a new product might be an increase in the company’s marketing costs. An additional secondary effect might be increased costs incurred through training up staff on how to use and sell the product. 
  • Task the individual on an exercise to generate a range of possible ideas to solve the complex problem of improving a unit or company’s financial performance, shortlisting those that seem feasible.
  • Reflect with the individual about evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of their different solutions. 

Practising it:

There are plenty of opportunities for building this skill in the workplace:

  • Working with colleagues: During team meetings to decide the best possible course of action when faced with a complex problem.
  • Working with customers or clients: When helping clients or customers to respond to a complex problem by advising which solutions they might adopt.

Reviewing it:

For those already employed, this step is best assessed through observation and discussion with an individual. For instance:

  • If an individual is already engaged in handling a complex problem, a manager might observe them at key stages of the process to look for evidence of this skill step. Evidence could be found in the individual explore the causes and effects of complex problems, creating a range of options, and filtering those down according to what is feasible.
  • If an individual isn’t already engaged in solving a complex problem, a manager might create a training scenario which creates opportunity for the individual to demonstrate these steps.

Spotting it in recruitment: 

During the recruitment process, this step could be assessed by:

  • A manager might discuss with an individual how they would approach a complex problem to check they are aware of key concepts which would support them to do this well as they have been laid out in the building blocks above.

Build this step

Advice for


We work with a wide range of organisations, who use the Skills Builder approach in lots of different settings – from youth clubs, to STEM organisations, to careers and employability providers.

We have a lot of materials available to support you to use the Skills Builder Universal Framework with the individuals you work with, including:

  • Tools for self-reflection
  • Materials to support you to teach the skills, if appropriate in your setting
  • Reward systems like printable certificates

We also do a lot of work with organisations who join the Skills Builder Partnership to build the Universal Framework into their work and impact measurement systems. You can find out a lot more using the links below.

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Advice for

Parents & Carers

At home, you can easily support your child to build their essential skills. The good news is that there
are lots of ways that you can have a big impact, including:

  • Talking with your child about the essential skills, what they are and how they are useful in all
    aspects of life, whether at school, home or in the workplace
  • Talking about how you use these skill steps in your own work or wider life
  • Helping your child to identify where they already build their skills at school, at home or
    through other activities and clubs
  • Praising your child when they show they are using the skills well, and helping them to feel a
    sense of achievement
  • Encouraging them to recognise and talk confidently about their skill strengths with others, and
    supporting them to develop their skills further

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