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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 6, individuals will be able to identify complex problems, which are those without simple technical solutions.  

In the first steps of Problem Solving (Steps 0-3) the focus was on simple problems – those with a simple correct answer and completing those by following instructions, finding someone to help, seeking advice or finding the additional information themselves. The next steps (Steps 4-5) focus on complicated problems – those where there is a technical solution, but there might be a range of options which have to be considered in turn. 

This step introduces complex problems – those without a ‘correct answer’.

Building blocks

The building blocks of this step are learning:

  • How to identify complex problems 
  • How to work with complex problems

Reflection questions

  • What sort of problems are most difficult to solve?
  • What do you think complex problems are? 
  • Can you give any examples? 
  • How can we solve complex problems?
  • What should we do? What should we not do?

What you need to know

Simple and complicated problems

So far, you have been introduced to two different types of problem:

  • Simple Problems: These normally have one, obvious correct answer. The answer might be obvious to us, or we might need to use research or seek help, but there is only one answer to find. 
  • Complicated Problems: These problems might have multiple possible answers or solutions. We can come up with different possible answers, and then we need to find a way of choosing between them – identifying the pros and cons is one simple method of doing that. Although these are more difficult than simple problems, we can normally get to the best answer.

Complex problems

We are now introducing a third type of problem – the complex problem. This is a problem where we cannot entirely know what the correct answer is, because it depends on a lot of different things, only some of which we can know. 

Complex problems are much more difficult to work with than simple or complicated problems, because even when we have done lots of work on them, we might never know if we have come up with the best answer. Instead, we just have to try to come up with as good an answer or solution as we can.


How to spot complex problems

Some examples of complex problems include:

  • What would be the effect of banning air travel? 
  • How can we improve the environment? 
  • How can we make a business more successful? 

These are complex problems because we cannot just solve one part of the problem – they all link together. For example, banning air travel could be expected to have a positive impact on the environment. However, it might also reduce the amount of fresh food that is imported from other countries. This might mean that people eat less healthily, or that we try to grow food that we used to import in our country – which might use a lot more energy to do because the climate is not right. Banning air travel might also lead to a lot of unemployment for people working for airlines, building aircraft or working in airports. This, in turn, will have further effects on people’s incomes and happiness. It is also likely that more journeys will be made by car or by train, so there will still be some environmental impact.

Complex problems do not have easy answers, and experts might disagree (and indeed, often do) because no one has all the information they need to come to one correct answer.


Working with complex problems

Complex problems are very difficult to solve completely, but we can make some good progress if we work hard on them. 

Some things that we should do when working with complex problems:

  • Accept that it is a complex problem, and that you are not going to come to one correct answer that everyone understands. 
  • Take time to understand the problem – try to build a deep appreciation of the problem and what the different links are between this problem and other issues in the world.
  • Try to break the problem down into smaller questions – so that the big, complex problem becomes more manageable.

Advice for


Why this skill step matters in education

As well as simple and complicated problems, you may come across complex problems. The correct or best answer to a complex problem depends on many different things. It is a very challenging type of problem as we may not know some of these things we would like to in order to solve the problem (perhaps because they depend on what will happen in the future). This could include making important decisions about which subjects or courses you want to take in the future. Even when we have done lots of work on this type of problem, we might not know if we have come up with the best answer. This can make it very tricky but everyone will feel similar when dealing with complex problems.

Why this skill step matters in the workplace

Complex problems, such as how can we make a business more successful, do not have easy answers. Managers may disagree on the best course of action to take to make improvements to their products or services. Coming up with plans may take a great deal of time and effort as employees look to find as much information as they can to help their business move forward. In larger organisations someone, or a team of people, may have the responsibility for searching for the information to help create solutions to the complex problems the organisation faces.

Why this skill step matters in the wider world

Complex problems are very difficult to solve when they crop up. Having the desire to get as close to solving them as you can though is a good first step. Being keen and eager to search out as much of the information as you can to help you create possible solutions will be beneficial. You might be looking to start a community group or exploring ways you could improve the environment in your local area. Give yourself time to fully understand the problem. Then by breaking it down as best you can in to smaller more manageable chunks is advisable to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

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!

  • Check you understand the difference between a simple, a complicated and a complex problem and think of examples of each you or someone you know have encountered.
  • Choose a complex problem to focus on, for example how can we encourage more people to eat healthily and exercise more. Think what the effect would be. What would success look like? Consider ideas to improve the situation.
  • When you come across a big, complex problem try to really understand it.  Read more about it, ask questions. Try to break the problem down into smaller more manageable parts to find the answers.

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Teaching It

To teach this step:

  • The teacher should first ensure that learners are secure in their understanding of what the difference is between simple, complicated and complex problems. This might include giving some examples of different questions and asking learners to classify them.
  • Learners could then look at a complex problem. Ideally, this would link to other subject learning they are carrying out, so that they have the opportunity to explore and join up that knowledge with building their understanding of their essential skills. 
  • This complex problem should be structured by a teacher, to help them think about what the links are between different parts of a problem. 

Reinforcing it

This is a step that can be reinforced through the prism of building subject knowledge. Learners could look at a subject area through the lens of a particular complex problem, and use their learning as a way to answer that question. This idea is explored more in the next step. 

Assessing it 

This step is best assessed through an activity. For example:

  • Learners could identify the complex problems from a list of questions, and justify why they think that is a complex problem. 
  • They can then choose a complex problem and think about how they would go about starting to solve it, and what some of the different questions were that they would need to answer.

Build this step

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Build it at work: 

This step will be relevant to those individuals involved in solving complex problems through their work. 

To build this step in the work environment, managers could:

  • Explain to an individual the difference between a complicated and complex problem to help an individual recognise when they might not be able to find a simple technical answer to a problem. Here a manager might compare the complicated problem of who should we hire with how the complex problem of how we can become a more successful business. 
  • Model how to work with complex problems by showing how to break them down into smaller questions.
  • Task an individual on a complex problem with colleagues from a different part of the business who are affected by the problem in a different way. This may help an individual to better understand the nature of complex problems.
  • Reflect with the individual about how different parts of a complex problem link together.

Practising it:

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

  • Working with colleagues: During project meetings to solve problems that are complex in nature, in groups or as an individual. 
  • Working with customers or clients: When addressing limiting factors or constraints to improve a service or product for client. 

Reviewing it:

For those already employed, this step is best assessed through observation. For instance:

  • Observing an individual to identify how well an individual handles a complex problem. This might include looking for evidence of best practice as described in the section above.

Spotting it in recruitment: 

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

  • Asking an individual to describe a time when they have tackled a complex problem. Through questioning, it may become clear as to what an individual thinks constitutes a complex problem and how aware they are of best approaches to tackling it.

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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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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